The Genealogy of Ideas
Look at this equal sign: =. There’s the top line. There’s the bottom line. And there’s the line of white space that runs between the top and bottom line. Art teachers use the equal sign—they have students draw two parallel lines on a piece of paper—to teach students that 1 + 1 = 3. Creativity is usually a 1 + 1 = 3 process. A new idea is usually the product of combining two or more preexisting ideas. In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon talks about genetics. A person is the sum of parts from two parents. Ideas are the sum of parts from two or more parent ideas. When you think something is “original,” you actually just don’t know the parent ideas. “All creative work builds on what came before,” Kleon writes. “Nothing is completely original.” As you have a familial genealogy, every idea has a genealogy of ideas.
This week, I want to look at some examples and implications of the fact that all ideas are just a mashup of ideas.
Take Old Chestnuts and Put Them Together
In the 80s, Quentin Tarantino worked for five years at a movie store in Manhattan Beach called Video Archives. When the store closed in 1995, Tarantino bought the inventory and rebuilt the store in his home. In interviews with people who have worked with Tarantino, they almost always talk about Tarantino’s deep well of movie knowledge. I don’t know anyone who knows as much about movies as Quentin, these people often say. Or, I don’t know anyone who has watched as many movies as Quentin. His own movies, Tarantino says, are just a mashup of pieces from other movies. Take “Pulp Fiction”—considered an iconic masterpiece. “The idea with Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino said, “I thought it would be kind of cool to take three separate stories, three of the oldest stories in the book.” There’s John Travolta’s character—“the hoodlum who has to go out with the boss’s lady, ‘but don’t touch her.’ We’ve seen that before, a zillion times.” Next is Bruce Willis’ character—“that’s the boxer who’s supposed to throw the fight and he doesn’t and now the mob’s after him. We’ve seen that story a million times before.” Finally there’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Character—“the hitman showing up, [makes sound of gunshots], ‘you wanna witness something, witness this,’ [makes sound of gunshot].” We’ve seen that story a million times too, Tarantino says, but usually, the hitman shoots someone then it cuts to the good guy who is going to go after the bad guy. “So I thought,” Tarantino said, “’well, what happens if we hung out with the bad guys all day long? After they kill the guy, what happens the rest of their day?’” That’s “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino said. “It was the idea of taking these old chestnuts and putting them together.”
What You Create Is A Culmination
In 1985, Nike’s shoe department was struggling. So it held a 24-hour shoe design competition. Designers across all departments had to participate. The winner of the competition was a corporate architect named Tinker Hatfield. Tinker was transferred to Nike’s shoe-design department. As he learned about Nike’s innovative footwear technology, Tinker was amazed by what a terrible job Nike was doing in educating the public about its innovative footwear technology. He began to think of ways to better educate consumers. Years earlier, in architecture school, Tinker learned about a building in Paris: the Georges Pompidou Center. Over time, he became so obsessed with the building that he flew to Paris to see it. It’s an inside-out building: the structural & mechanical systems are exposed. “That building,” Tinker said, “was describing what it was to the people of Paris.” So he thought, “why not do that with a shoe? Why not cut a whole in the side and show what’s in the shoe?” That question led Tinker to design a shoe that revolutionized the shoe industry: The Air Max. 1 + 1 = 3. “As I often say,” Tinker said, “when you sit down to create something, what you create is a culmination of everything you’ve seen and done previous to that point.”
“Some the best ideas,” the billionaire co-founder and CTO of HubSpot Dharmesh Shah says, “are when you take stuff from other industries and pull them into another context and apply it in a weird way.” In software engineering, Dharmesh continues, there is method of analysis referred to as “functional decomposition.” If some function or output is not working properly, a software engineer will break the function down, layer by layer, to find the component part or input that is creating the problem. “If you layer down far enough,” Dharmesh says, “individual inputs at the atomic level are so simple as to be trivial. What matters is being able to abstract down to those simple things.” Most things—learning an instrument, writing a screenplay, designer a sneaker, etc—can be functionally decomposed. Most things are made up of a collection of components that are so simple as to be trivial. What matters is being able to piece them together.
The great fantasy and science fiction writer Brandon Sanderson was asked if he actively tries to avoid being derivative or if he cares if other writers derive from him. It’s not possible to not be derivative, Sanderson said. “The way that human creativity works is recombination,” he said. “We remix. That’s what we’re really good at. We don’t come up with a new, wholesale creature. We put a horn on a horse and go, ‘look at that, that’s cool.’ That’s how we create on a fundamental level.” Sanderson goes on to suggest trying to create in your mind a color you’ve never seen before. When I first heard his suggestion, I took two colors I have seen before then I tried to imagine what those two colors fused together would create. And that was Sanderson’s point. You can’t create something out of nothing. “Our brains aren’t equipped for that,” Sanderson says. Creativity is combinatorial. Or, to borrow from Dharmesh and software engineering, creativity is functional recomposition. You create by taking existing pieces of knowledge and insight then connecting them, piecing them together. You take old chestnuts and put them together. You look at the Pompidou Center then you look at a sneaker then you imagine what would happen if you fused those together and then finally, you design the Air Max and revolutionize the sneaker industry.
The History You Don’t Know
Harry Truman said, “the only thing that’s really new is the history you don’t know.” The only thing that’s really original is the ideas you don’t know. People have been saying it forever—it’s there in the Old Testament, “there is nothing new under the sun.” There’s just a bunch of old ideas to be pieced together in original ways.