“After more searching and studying, I came up with two basic categories of good questions: factual and investigative…The objective of a factual question is to get information: ‘Do you want coffee or tea?’ ‘How many units did we sell last week?’ ‘Is there gas in the car?’
“You may not know the immediate answer to a factual question, but you know how to find it. There is no real discovery required beyond expressing your opinion, making a call, or looking at the gas gauge. Factual questions serve an important purpose in allowing us to communicate with each other and exchange information. They are limited in their ability to do anything more nuanced than gather information.”
McKinney continues by getting to the heart of good questions, which he’s dubbed as “investigative questions.”
“An investigative question, on the other hand, cannot be answered with a yes or a no and is much more useful for our purposes. By definition, it is a divergent question, meaning that there is more than one correct answer (unlike factual questions). It cannot be answered with one phone call, or a quick check at some stats or figures, and forces us to investigate all of the possibilities.”
Investigative questions are more likely to lead to creative results, due to the wide array of possible responses.
Asking what a larger or smaller version of something might look like and how it would affect how that something functions is a great example of an investigative question. Asking how something would work in space, or what people would think of something 50,000 year from now, are other great examples.
When you’re looking for creative questions, ask the ones that are less informative and more exploratory, that’s where the most thought-provoking insights lie.
In the mid-1800s a French man by the name of Louis Ducos du Hauron had an idea for developing color photographs.
At the time it was incredibly difficult – if not entirely impossible – to develop colored photographs due to an insensitivity on the plates used to develop red and green colors in the photographs.
Hauron’s idea was simple enough: he added chemical stabilizers to the development process.
But Hauron didn’t officially patent or document the idea fully for about six years. During that time a Charles Cros, a French poet, stumbled on the exact same idea. In a surprising move, Hauron re-appeared and patented his original process a year after Cros came up with his, establishing himself as a leading pioneer in the color photography industry.
The simple idea revolutionized photography. It was undoubtedly one of the most impactful ideas in history, and yet two men were capable of having it.
Through-out history there have been countless ideas (both big and small) where multiple people were responsible for coming up with them.
Calculus was invented by both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Oxygen by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Joseph Priestley, and Antoine Lavoisier. The carbon microphone, the internet, sailing vessels, printing, and many, many other ideas and inventions all discovered simultaneously by independent people.
Yet, despite the almost ubiquitous nature of these ideas, each has been labeled as revolutionary and world-changing, undefinably valuable.
If it’s possible to have a world-changing, creative idea that so many other people can have, how are you to know whether or not the idea is valuable? Here’s three ways:
Look at how original the idea is.
Despite multiple people coming up with the concept of a telephone, Alexander Graham Bell was the only one who came up with the original idea of utilizing stretched animal skin on the receiver. Suffice to say, that idea helped make the larger concept more original.
When you look at your ideas, evaluate how original it is. Have you ever seen anything like it before? Would others call you “crazy” even though you know the idea is possible? That’s original, and you might be onto something with it. But there’s more to evaluate.
Ask how easy it would be for someone else to think up.
How much time have you put into the idea? We’re not looking at the time it took to write the idea down or daydream about it, but the experiences and existing knowledge you have that made it possible to conceptualize it.
Most ideas take years to come to reality due to a number of variables at play.
Steven Johnson explores some of these variables (like culture, state of environment, and more) in his great book: Where Good Ideas Come From.
Consider how helpful the idea is for you.
Not all big ideas are world-changing. Some of the most valuable creative ideas only need to help one person: you.
If your idea will undoubtedly help you and your life (without straining others, of course), there’s a decent level of value in that.
But that’s not all.
The real trick to evaluating an idea’s value is, of course, to test the idea in the real world.
Because ideas aren’t worth anything if they’re just in your head. It’s only when you try the idea out in a tangible way that you’re going to really see it’s value.
When I was younger I remember visiting my grandparents home, an old, red bricked building with just one floor.
The story was that my grandfather had built the home himself decades ago, by hand, brick by brick. He wanted to live near some land that had housed his orchard of apples, grapes, apricots, and – most understated – honey bees. So he bought up the nearby lot and built a home for his young family.
Every time I’d visit that place, my Father would sit in the kitchen with his Mother and talk about the state of the house, or how his Father was doing, or the best way to cook plums.
As they talked I would immerse myself in a world of Legos; those little yellow, blue, red, and green blocks that snapped together to create nearly anything my heart or mind desired.
Dozens of those little blocks remained scattered in a white pullout drawer at the edge of the hallway whenever any of us kids weren’t around. When we arrived at the home and the parents got to talking, we’d spend hours in that hallway, fiddling with the few lego blocks. We’d create spaceships and jungles, factories and armies, and homes, just like the one my grandfather had built that we were playing in.
Partially because a child’s imagination is insatiable, and partially because there was little room to store any more of them in that white drawer, I remember there only ever being a small collection of Legos to play with, maybe two or three dozens blocks at most.
The limitations of being able to build a toy house that stood just half a foot tall vs one that stood three feet tall was invigorating. Not only did I have to use my creativity to imagine a world to play in with the Legos, I had to really push myself to create a world where it was acceptable for spaceships to only have one wing or for people to function without legs. It was never much of a problem, but it was a challenge for my imagination.
Then, one day, more blocks appeared in the drawer.
I felt joyous at the number of new ideas that swarmed through my mind almost instantly at the sight. More Legos meant more possibilities to create with. While the limitations before were invigorating, having even more blocks allowed me to really create.
Suffice to say, I was never bored at that home.
I wondered then if my grandfather ever felt overwhelmed or constrained when he was building his home. If he ever felt as though just a few more bricks, a few more nails, or a few more sheets of drywall would make it easier to transform the idea in his head into a reality.
His constraints helped fueled his creativity, but so did the bricks and nails that he did have.
Creativity is very much like a drawer full of Lego blocks, where each block represents some experience or some concept that you’ve collected in your life. A block could be a book you’ve read, a conversation you’ve had, something you made when you were younger, a friendship, your job, a movie or TV show, anything.
When you have a drawer with only a few blocks you can do a lot with them, but you’ll have to push yourself and bend some rules, maybe cutting your idea short in order to make it real.
If, on the other hand, you spend time to gather more blocks, to build up your experiences, you’re going to have a lot more to draw from when it comes time to create.
How are you collecting more “Legos” in your life to fuel your creative genius today?
This image represents what your brain looks like while working.
More precisely: it’s a visual chart of neural signals firing over time, a representation of how thoughts work in the brain. Compared to a computer, this type of representation resembles that of a digital signal, with 0 and 1 states for processes (you did know that’s how computers work, right?).
To understand how creativity works we have to better understand how thought processes work, and one thing we understand is that the brain is neither analog or digital in how it works, it’s a little bit of both.
“The brain is neither analog nor digital, but works using a signal processing paradigm that has some properties in common with both… all of the signals sent around the brain are ‘either-or’ states that are similar to [digital languages]. A neuron fires or it does not. These all-or-nothing pulses are the basic language of the brain.”
So everything going through your brain when you have an idea, or while you’re reading these words, is very similar to a binary on-or-off state. What’s really interesting about these signals is that they never follow the same route twice, because the brain is such a vast, dynamic system.
To quote Paul again: “One of the central tasks of neuroscience is to figure out how this information processing paradigm works.”
There’s a lot of signals going on and off inside that head of yours right now. To understand where ideas come from and how they work this type of imagery can go a long way. Plus it’s interesting to look at, don’t you think?
What’s the difference between creativity and innovation?
Creativity deals with original thought, asking “what comes next?” Innovation is about building on what already exists, focusing on ways to improve something already established.
Creatives are dreamers, innovators are builders.
If you think of ideas as nails, creatives are those who gather up the nails and collect them in mental boxes or notebooks. They look at the nails and ask “what could this be used for?”
Innovators are those who see the nails and think “how could this be made better?” They put in the work to hammer the nails into something better.
Creativity is about thinking of new types of nails, dreaming up never before thought-of alternatives to nails. Innovation is about how to improve upon the nail in order to build a better product. One is creating the new, one is improving on the old.
To be an innovator you have to have some level of creative ability, of course. Innovation requires the ability to think creatively and see what new ways something old can be improved..
Creatives, on the other hand, don’t have to be innovators, they don’t have to work in the realm of what already exists or what action needs to be taken. This one difference helps explains why so many creatives turn to forms of creative expression, like painting or poetry or interpretive dance. They’re often not building on something already established, but instead are often creating something from nothing.
Depending on your purpose in life, being a creative may be better than being an innovator, or vice versa. Are you the type who enjoys gathering original ideas (writing sci-fi novels or creating new technology from nothing), or are you the type who wants to see improvement to what already exists (by creating a new type of phone or tweaking a process at work or school)?
Odds are that you’re both, but to what extent are you innovating vs dreaming up new ideas?