My 3-year-old son loved to watch shark videos on YouTube.
Eventually he grew bored of that, though, and started watching cartoon Halloween and haunted house videos.
That phase lasted a long time but eventually he grew out of it. After that came superheroes flying through the air.
Then one day I noticed he was watching a new type of video, about a cartoon scary flying shark. He watched it so much I couldn’t get the theme song out of my head:
Scary flying shark. Scary flying shark. Careful you — he will hunt you in the dark!
He was hooked. He’s not the only one, either. This video has nearly 1.3 million views on YouTube.
This cartoon, as ridiculous as it seemed to an adult, brilliantly connected three things he loved: scary cartoons, sharks and flying superheroes.
Why didn’t I think of that?
The myopia of the expert
Creativity is just connecting things, Steve Jobs once said in a 1996 interview with Wired Magazine:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
On the surface, what could seem more simple? It’s a formula anyone can follow.
The problem is we spend our entire lives labeling, classifying, separating and keeping different domains apart.
In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin write that this tendency to live in silos is a byproduct of the industrial revolution. We all become individual parts, specialists in our narrow field without being able to see the larger picture:
The journey starts at school. We are sucked into a funnel at an early age. Opting for certain academic disciplines during high school limits what can be pursued at university or as a trade. For those who aspire to it, a higher education specialism then narrows workplace possibilities. Qualifications lead to employment, which in turn lead to the constraints of a role and job description; the path towards increasing functional expertise. Measurement and performance assessment impel us to sharpen our skill set within this restricted field. The myopia of the expert sets in. The boundaries within which the specialist operates gets narrower still.
Specializing is all about productivity, which has been instilled in us as a value handed down from factories. To be efficient, you have to block out all ancillary distractions and focus on the task at hand. You stick to your checklist, or do what you’re told.
If you’re an engineering major, you know what goes into your studies. You become an expert in math and science. And just as important, you know what doesn’t go into your studies as an engineering major. You won’t study theatre, art history and dance. That would be pointless waste of time, or even worse, a distraction.
But what are you missing when you exclude? What creative breakthrough could happen when you combine something from an unrelated field?
Apple helped revolutionize technology when they adding new functions and apps to phones. No longer was it just used for making telephone calls, now it was a place to store your music, send photos, take videos, track your fitness, play games, and a virtually unlimited combination of tasks that you want to do. (I’m actually typing this sentence right now with the Google Docs app on my iPhone.)
It makes sense in retrospect, but can you imagine how stupid it sounded at the first brainstorming meeting for what would become the iPhone? Why would you need to store your music collection on the device you used to make phone calls?
In that Wired interview, Jobs lamented about how rare it was to see people take the simple step of connecting things to produce creative solutions:
“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity,” he said. “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
To start connecting things, you have to retrain your brain. You have to set efficiency aside (at least momentarily) and think about the adjacent possible.
(The adjacent possible is a fancy term that basically just means adding something new to something familiar. But use the term “the adjacent possible” in casual conversation if you want to sound smart and/or pretentious.)
In the practice of improv, the goal is to work with your partners to keep adding on to a scene. The goal is never to try to be funny. Rather, the comedy happens as a result of connecting the different words, phrases, situations and personalities of those involved.
The golden rule of improv is “yes, and…”
There’s no magic involved in improv. Rather, it all comes from a mindset of connecting things to produce something new and creative.
Improv comedians have to work at this skill. There are dozens of exercise games to warm up their improv muscles, from Accepting Circle to Zombie Name Game. There’s no Scary Flying Shark game yet, but there is a game called Alien Tiger Cow. The point of improv warm-up exercises is to loosen your inhibitions about seeing what possible. Your brain starts making associations even — or especially — if they are weird.
It’s not easy to get into a mindset of connecting things. Blending unlike things together can seem pointless, distracting, absurd or even dangerous. Keeping things in their separate containers is safe. It also limits what’s possible.
If we didn’t start connecting things, there would be no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, no iPhones with apps, no scary flying shark YouTube videos.
When you start seeing the world as potential permutations, you see possibilities everywhere. The connections are infinite. Scary flying sharks are just the beginning.
Look around you. What connections do you see.
What can you connect?