Uncommon Genius: Stephen Jay Gould on Why Dot-Connecting Is the Key to Creativity
“The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time.”
By Maria Popova
“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in the fantastic 1957 tome The Art of Scientific Investigation. “The role of the imagination is to create new meanings and to discover connections that, even if obvious, seem to escape detection,” legendary graphic designer Paul Rand seconded. Indeed, longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our “original” creations. Paula Scher has likened the process to a slot machine; Dorion Sagan has asserted that science is about connections; Gutenberg has embodied it. And some of history’s most celebrated creators have attested to it with the nature of their genius.
A slim and near-forgotten but altogether fantastic 1991 book by Denise Shekerjian titled Uncommon Genius: How Great Ideas Are Born (public library | IndieBound) synthesizes insights on creativity from conversations with 40 winners of the MacArthur “genius” grant — artists, writers, scientists, inventors, cultural critics.
In the first chapter, titled “Talent and The Long Haul,” Shekerjian seconds the notion that a regular routine is key to creativity:
There’s no use trying to deny it: a conscious application of raw talent, far more than luck or accident, is at the core of every creative moment. … The cultivation of aptitude, far more than coincidence or inspiration, is responsible for most creative breakthroughs.
The trick to creativity, if there is a single useful thing to say about it, is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time. Everyone has an aptitude for something. The trick is to recognize it, to honor it, to work with it. This is where creativity starts.
Among the geniuses illustrating her point is the great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whom we lost eleven years ago this week and who has done more for the popular understanding of science than anyone since Carl Sagan by demonstrating why science and philosophy need each other with his singular blend of a humanist’s sensitivity and a scientist’s rigor. But Gould’s greatest gift, per his own account, is what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which lies at the heart of innovation, the kind of pattern-recognition science says fuels creativity and is the architecture sustaining all “original thought.” Gould tells Shekerjian:
My talent is making connections. That’s why I’m an essayist. It’s also why my technical work is structured the way it is. How do the parts of the snail shell interact? What are the rates of growth? Can you see a pattern? I’m always trying to see a pattern in this forest and I’m tickled that I can do that. … I can sit down on just about any subject and think of about twenty things that relate to it and they’re not hokey connections. They’re real connections that you can forge into essays or scientific papers. When I wrote Ontogeny and Phylogeny I had no trouble reading eight hundred articles and bringing them together into a single thread. That’s how it went together. There’s only one way it goes together, one best taxonomy, and I knew what it was.
But this gift — the same crucial talent-of-the-future that Vannevar Bush identified in 1945 when he presaged “a new profession of trail blazers … who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” — wasn’t, perhaps because of its abstract and thus intangible nature, easy for Gould to identify at first:
It took me years to realize that was a skill. I could never understand why everybody just didn’t do that. People kept telling me these essays were good and I thought, All right, I can write, but surely what I’m doing is not special. And then I found out that it’s not true. Most people don’t do it. They just don’t see the connections.
Gould notices another aspect of his poorly understood kind of genius — people’s tendency to conflate it with a kind of general-purpose, omniscient intelligence:
A lot of people think I’m very well read because I quote all these sources and they’re reasonable quotations. They’re not hokey. They’re not pulled out. And I keep telling them, ‘I’m not particularly well read. I just don’t forget anything.’
I’m not badly read — I’m just sort of an average intellectual in that respect — but the thing is, I can use everything I’ve ever read. Most people cannot do that. They’ll probably access just a couple of percent of what they have. So, therefore, when they see me citing so much they assume I have fifty times more but I don’t. I’m using a hundred percent of what I have. They’re using two percent of what they have.
With a sentiment Steve Jobs would come to echo just a few years later in his famous proclamation that “creativity is just connecting things,” Shekerjian summarizes:
Gould’s special talent, that rare gift for seeing the connections between seemingly unrelated things, zinged to the heart of the matter. Without meaning to, he had zeroed in on the most popular of the manifold definitions of creativity: the idea of connecting two unrelated things in an efficient way. The surprise we experience at such a linkage brings us up short and causes us to think, Now that’s creative.
But she concludes by emphasizing something celebrated creative minds like Alexander Graham Bell (“It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.”) and Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”) also knew — the idea that genius is nothing without consistent effort:
Stephen Jay Gould’s talent for forging vital connections happens to go to the heart of creativity, but, even so, it’s a talent that wouldn’t amount to much if he didn’t work at it. Endurance counts for a lot in cultivating talent to the point of being able to do creative things with it — endurance and a concentration of effort to a specific sphere of activity. As D. N. Perkins, another researcher in the field of creativity, put it: Be creative in a context, for to try to be original everywhere, all at once, all the time, is an exhausting proposition.
For more of Gould’s genius, see the indispensable I Have Landed — the tenth and final of his timeless essay anthologies, originally published in 2002 mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer. As for Uncommon Genius, it is uncommonly excellent in its entirety.
Published May 23, 2013