GENEVA — Employers have been placing an extra premium on creativity these last few years. They fight to get the so-called creative workers — those who are open-minded, bold, curious. Those who are active, outgoing and thrive on change.
But creativity isn't a mysterious gift for a select few. It involves a long and conscious process that can ultimately allow one to master the art of revealing hidden analogies. German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler explains that our best discoveries occur when data is suddenly connected with distant facts to shed new light. Put more simply, as Apple’s iconic founder Steve Jobs once noted, creativity is about connecting things together.
The 20th-century writer Arthur Koestler once said that originality isn't about creating ideas from scratch — it involves pulling together well-established patterns and structures. "The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament," he wrote. "It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole."
A sewing machine and stroke of genius
Louis and Auguste Lumière exemplify the "Eureka!" moment — the sudden shock when making a connection between two unconnected objects. In 1894, the Lumière brothers had drawn up plans and built several prototypes of a motion-picture camera but were facing a major obstacle: how could they keep the film moving?
"One evening, Louis came back early from the Lumière factory,” writes Anne Vermès in “Entreprendre comme les frères Lumières” [Be entrepreneurial like the Lumière brothers], and the story goes like this:
Louis heard muffled sounds and entered a linen room where a young girl was angrily kicking a sewing machine.
The machine's intermittent movement fascinated him: It included a needle that entered and came out quickly from the fabric in a jerking movement. That’s when Louis Lumière had a stroke of genius.
Vintage advertisement for the cinématographe — Photo: Marcellin Auzolle
"Look,” he told his brother, “if you put a two-sided perforated film in place of the fabric: it stops, then it restarts, it stops, it restarts, as the cylinder jerks… as fast as you want to."
A few months later, the Lumière motion-picture camera was born. He used a 35-millimeter perforated strip of celluloid displayed at a rate of 16 images per second.
Gustave Eiffel was inspired by the human body’s bone structure
Nature has always been inspirational as it allows people to break down and rearrange the structures of their mental organization.
Pierre-Moniz Barreto, author of the book “Slow Business,” writes that Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral invented Velcro by observing how burdock seeds clung to his clothes and his dog's fur.
Barreto also writes about how Gustave Eiffel, the inventor of France’s Eiffel Tower, was inspired by the human body’s bone structure.
"In the 1850s, anatomist Hermann Von Meyer studied the human skeleton's functions and noticed that the femoral head had an unusual structure. This allowed the body weight to be borne in a slightly off-center manner by the bones and legs,” Barreto says.
When Gustave Eiffel started the construction of his famous tower in 1898, he replicated this complicated bone structure in the arches of tower’s base.
"By using a series of wrought-iron braces and pegs, he managed to replicate nature's ingenuity. The result is remarkable, especially in terms of longevity. This 324-meter high tower — which was supposed to be dismantled after 20 years — has resisted for more than 120 years and has become a timeless icon in Paris."
More recently, a textile manufacturer designed a revolutionary swimsuit that reduces water drag by reproducing the spikes on the skin of sharks.
The first Eureka!
One of the earliest recorded Eureka moments was when the Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes was faced by a seemingly intractable problem. Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, had asked him to determine the weight of gold in his crown, having suspected it had been mixed with silver. Archimedes was faced with a complex problem. How could he estimate the amount of gold in the crown without damaging its engravings and watermarks?
"If he had been able to melt the crown and measure the liquid gold with a pint, or hammer it to create a block, he would have known right away if it was pure gold or not,” writes Koestler in Le Cri D'Archimède [Archimedes' Cry]. “We can imagine Archimedes' thoughts going in circles, scanning his knowledge of geometrics, and finding all the paths leading to the solution closed and going back to the starting point."
And yet, the solution revealed itself to him at bath time. The familiar sight of the water level rising gradually in the basin as he entered it sparked a thought: the volume of water that was displaced was equal to the volume of his body's submerged parts.
“Never had Armichedes or anybody else thought about connecting the ordinary activity of taking a hot bath with the intellectual exercise of measuring solids,” Koestler writes.
No, creativity is not some kind of natural gift. It’s a process supported by an attitude open toward new and unexpected ideas. Above all, it requires the ability to think beyond just the problem that needs to be solved.