Steve Jobs was creative precisely because he opened himself up to new experiences— studying calligraphy and Zen Buddhism, visiting an ashram in India, strolling the kitchen appliance section at Macy’s (the Apple II was modeled after a Cuisinart), or copying the Ritz-Carlton’s steps of service in the Apple Store (though the Genius Bar dispenses advice, not alcohol). Jobs experienced the world and built on those experiences to improve upon what has been done. Creativity, said Jobs, “comes down to exposing yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you’re doing.”
When Jobs said he was “shameless about stealing great ideas,” he meant it in the Picasso context. Anyone can copy a competitor. True innovation occurs when you build on the ideas that came before you.
New Connections = New Value
“Steve Jobs taught me about ‘zooming,’ looking beyond the boundaries of the industry you’re in,” says former Apple CEO John Sculley. “Steve was a designer at heart. He loved calligraphy. It made a huge impression on him. Then he went to Xerox to see what they were working on. He saw experimental work-stations that used the first graphical user interface and connected the dots.”
Sculley calls it “zooming” or “connecting the dots.” You might know it as an “epiphany” or a “shower moment.” Your best ideas don’t always show up when you want them to. They don’t always arrive on your schedule or while you’re staring at a computer screen. Fortunately, we know how original ideas are formed, where they come from, and when they’re delivered in our mental mailbox.
One of the most talked-about slides in corporate history first appeared in 2011 during Steve Jobs’s launch of the iPad 2. The slide (pictured above) showed the intersection of two street signs. One sign read “Technology.” The other sign read “Liberal Arts.” Jobs said that technology alone was not enough to build great products. It’s the intersection— the marriage—of technology and liberal arts that made his “heart sing.” Jobs’s biographer, Walter Isaacson brought up the slide in his book about another creative genius, Leonardo da Vinci.
“Today we live in a world that encourages specialization, whether we are students, scholars, workers or professionals. We also tend to exalt training in technology and engineering, believing that the jobs of the future will go to those who can code and build rather than those who can be creative,” Isaacson writes. The innovators of the future, argues Isaacson, are those who, like Leonardo and Jobs, study the art of science and the science of art.
More than 7,000 pages of Leonardo’s extensive notes still exist. They teach us that Leonardo was relentlessly curious about the world. He let his mind wander across arts, sciences, engineering, and the humanities. He didn’t distinguish between science and art. History’s most creative genius became a genius because he saw that everything connects. And so Leonardo saw himself as a scientist, engineer, artist, inventor, anatomist, philosopher, painter, and storyteller.
Leonardo studied math and developed a system to measure size, space, and perspective. He studied the scientific properties of light. In Florence, he studied the art of painting under the masters of his day. He connected these ideas to create the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. Leonardo is considered history’s greatest genius because he connected different fields to arrive at novel ideas. When Andrew Stanton connected several ideas from his personal experiences to create Finding Nemo, he was simply following in the footsteps of the ancient artists. And you can, too.
What Threatens Our Creativity
In 2015, a group of researchers in Austria and Denmark performed a remarkable experiment. They discovered that when people were too familiar with a specific domain, it blocked their creativity, because they stopped looking outside of their area of expertise for ideas. The researchers interviewed hundreds of roofers, carpenters, and inline skaters. The three categories were chosen because— while they are completely different fields— they share an analogous problem: encouraging the use of safety gear to prevent injuries. Roofers use safety belts, carpenters use safety masks, and in-line skaters use knee and elbow protectors.
The researchers conducted 306 interviews. The participants were asked for their best ideas on the following topic: improving safety gear for the market they are experts in and for the other two categories. A panel of safety gear experts evaluated the responses. The findings were extraordinary: the more distant the field, the more novel the solution the participants came up with. In other words, members of each group were better at coming up with an innovative solution for a field other than their own. The experiment gives us insight into the minds of creative geniuses.
They’re not geniuses because they are smarter; they are geniuses because they’re open to connecting ideas from different fields. When asked what made the Macintosh a revolutionary computer, Steve Jobs answered: “Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, and artists, and zoologists and historians.” They also happened to know computer science, Jobs added. Jobs’s goal wasn’t to be average. His goal was to be great. And greatness, he said, comes from connecting ideas.