On 27th May 2016 I took up an invitation to speak at a TEDx event in Brasov.
I’m used to public speaking and am not usually nervous, at least not once I’ve stepped on stage and got going. But I was quaking with terror all the way through this – if you see the video, you’ll hear my voice shaking as if in the middle of a 7.0 earthquake…
So rather than posting the video here (I’m sure you can hunt it down if you really really want to), I’m posting the text. It’s quite long, about 14 minutes as a video. If you read the whole thing, I’d love to hear your feedback.
27 May 2016, TEDx Brasov
Imagination. Creativity. Innovation. All the same thing, aren’t they? Actually, no. They’re quite different, and you need all three to bring something new to the world.
Employers want ideas people. Problem solvers, innovators, creatives. They know that’s where the smart money is. Inventing and reinventing products, processes, management style, that’s what keeps a business ahead. Ideas. But ideas aren’t enough.
Take me. I’m full of ideas. Great ideas, a lot of them. But I’m lousy at innovation, and I can’t make things. And I’m not very confident. And I’m lazy. So most of my great ideas turn to dust. Except with books – and it wasn’t till I was 43 that I discovered that I could make books, and loved making books. Not just the words, but the actual objects – the choice of paper, binding, typefaces, all the twiddly bits – books that people liked to hold and read and possess. Of course I needed technical experts to do the bits I couldn’t but somehow I knew how to turn a heap of words into something that readers would enjoy reading, what would look good, feel good, smell delicious. Who else loves the smell of new books?
I’m a competent writer – and I’m not a bad cook.
But making things? Handicraft? I’m terrible. I have this detailed image in my head, but I make a horrible mess of creating it. I can’t manipulate wood, or fabric, or whatever to make that image a solid reality. For instance – I stand in my wild mess of a garden and have visions – ooh – a climbing rose here, and a tamarisk tree just there, and a fireplace over there, with a bench and a windbreak, and a table with a chessboard in it… The image is crystal clear, 3D, in my head – colours, textures, shapes, everything – but I need a creator to build it for me, because I don’t have the magic in my hands.
So… it takes more than one person to give the world something new. Innovation, creativity, imagination. Let’s look at those three words. We’ll work backwards.
Innovation is putting something new into use, getting it on to the market, getting it out into the world. For example – I’ve just finished writing a book, so innovation will be the day my book is published, when it’s out on the bookshop shelves. (Autumn) For an architect, it might be getting his radical carbon-neutral earthship house on TV. For a mother, it’s giving birth to her baby. That’s innovation – getting the new thing out.
Before you can put something new out into the world, you have to create it. The word create comes from the Greek word kreas – which means meat, or flesh. So when St John wrote about the Creation: ‘In the beginning was the Word….’ he was talking about God, the Creator, turning the Word – the nebulous idea – into the world and everything in it. And then his only son: “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us…” Jesus was born. Created as a human.
So, a creative person is someone who turns an idea into reality. Literally, puts meat on the bones of a concept. Brings it to life. Just as a mother grows a child from conception to birth.
Creativity is not the same as being artistic. Of course, artists are creative, but so are some accountants – everyone can take a creative approach to what they do. Often, the ‘creative person’ is two, three or more people working together. It’s very rare that one person has the god-like genius to be good at all three parts of the process, from idea to innovation.
In the 1950s the French artist Yves Klein invented a new colour: International Klein Blue. A blue so intense and vibrant that every molecule of pigment looks as if it has a tiny light inside it. It’s extraordinary. Klein had the artistic idea, but needed Edouard Adam, a Parisian art paint supplier, to create it.
In 1915, physics genius Albert Einstein believed that his own theory about gravity would be impossible to prove – and for 100 years, he was right. But this year, at last, scientists created the experiment and proved the impossible – they measured gravitational waves for the first time.
This is creativity – the ability, sometimes the genius, to make a dream come true.
But to make a dream come true, first you need the dream. This is imagination. The idea always comes first.
But lots of people believe they have no imagination. The question that authors get asked more often than any other is: ‘where do you get your ideas?’ People don’t know how to find their imagination, don’t know how to exercise it.
So how do we lose that imaginative power? Little kids have no problem. They can play on their own for hours, lost in their fantasy worlds. We encourage them. We play with them, read them fairy stories, take them to see Disney films. Little kids make up songs, draw wild pictures, tell bizarre stories. They have imaginary friends who are as solid and alive to them as their parents are. You did all those things, submerged in your imagination. We all did. Some of us still do…
But then comes school…. and for unlucky kids who don’t get good teachers, imagination is put away. From now on, life is all about finding your place in the world, being made to choose one path, and being obedient. They tell us: Stop daydreaming. Stop wasting time. Don’t talk nonsense. That’s not real. That’s wrong. Don’t draw outside the lines. Get on with your work. Don’t ask stupid questions. Be quiet and do as you’re told.
Once we get through the education system, we’re spat out into the working world, and unless we’re lucky enough to get a good boss, it’s: Get a proper job. Don’t argue with me. Don’t make trouble. That’s not the way it’s done. Be quiet and do as you’re told.
We’re educated from the age of five or six, so those messages are drummed into us for a minimum of ten years, usually our whole lives. An added problem is that failure is completely unacceptable. You fail, you’re out. Get it right first time. Mistakes will be punished. Do, or don’t do – there is no Try. But invention involves a lot of trial and error.
Employers say they want creative people, innovative thinking. But they also want employees to follow company rules, to do as instructed. You see the problem….
Releasing the imagination
But there’s good news. Everyone has a rich, living imagination, even if it’s locked away in the unconscious. And it doesn’t take much to release it.
Now and then I run workshops for people who want to write fiction. Novels, plays, films. They itch to write, but they struggle to think up original stories, original characters. ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I spend a day with them, but after three minutes their only struggle is to write fast enough. I give them the key to the cage, and after that I just watch their ideas fly. It’s magical. Sometimes it makes me cry. Sometimes it makes them cry. I just love it. And it never fails. Whether they’re 12 or 70, it works every time. It’s how our brains function. We can’t help it. We may be taught to ignore our imagination, because it’s uncontrollable (therefore dangerous), but it’s there, waiting.
There are lots of theories about creativity and imagination – where ideas come from, the process of invention. You must be alone. You must immerse yourself in experience. You must do this, you must do that. As far as I’m concerned there are no wrong answers. The only rule of the imagination is that there are no rules. It’s open, limitless, infinite, cosmic. In your imagination you are godlike – you can do anything, go anywhere, change everything. What’s more, it’s free, and needs nothing but your dangerously magical head, and time.
The essential factor is curiosity. Ask endless questions. The truth depends on where you’re standing, so move. Look at it from different angles. Upside down. Inside out. Question everything. Why? How? Why not? and the really important one: What if?
What if this wasn’t normal? What if that hadn’t happened? What if I did this instead? What if I push that big red button….?
What if leads to new ideas. Radical ideas, fantastic ideas, idiotic ideas, award-winning, world-changing ideas. From there, it’s a creative challenge, and after some mistakes and retakes, with the help of your team, some of those ideas reach the point of innovation.
So which are you: the imaginative ideas person, the magical creator, or the cunning innovator? Who has the skills that you’re missing? What could you do with the right team?
Just imagine… Start today. Why not start now?