You — yes, you — can create remarkable things. Here’s how.

We’ve heard these marching orders so often that they feel like rules: Create or die. Innovate or die. Learn / invent / discover / anticipate … or die.

Scary thoughts. If you’re like me, you’re saying, “I don’t know how to do any of those things. What chance do I have?”

A better chance than you think.

“The question is not whether invention is the sole province of a tiny minority but the opposite: How many of us are creative? The answer, hidden in plain sight, is all of us,” writes Kevin Ashton in How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery. “Creating is not extraordinary, even if its results sometimes are. Creation is human. It is in all of us.”

Whether it’s a spreadsheet at work or a book report for English class or dinner for the family, we create tons of stuff every day. Creation is baked into our DNA, so don’t tell me you can’t produce something remarkable. You can.

Here’s how, courtesy of Ashton.

Do the work
Creation doesn’t come to us in “Eureka!” moments of sheer genius. It’s not easy and it’s not spontaneous. It’s hard work.

“Work is the soul of creation,” Ashton writes. “Work is getting up early and going home late, turning down dates and giving up weekends, writing, reviewing and revising, rote and routine, staring down the doubt of the blank page, beginning when we do not know where to start, and not stopping when we cannot go on. It is not fun, romantic or, most of the time, even interesting. If we want to create, we must, in the words of Paul Gallico, open our veins and bleed.”

To create, Ashton says, is to work. There is no alternative.

Forget what you know
Creating something truly new and groundbreaking means we have to ignore the rules. “If you always do what you’ve always done,” Henry Ford once said, “you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Put another way: Legacy thinking makes us blind to new possibilities.

Ashton illustrates this notion by describing psychologist Karl Duncker’s now-famous Candle Problem. Best-selling author Dan Pink describes the problem brilliantly in his TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation.” Fast-forward to the 1:50 mark to hear Pink’s description.


In a nutshell, says Ashton, “old ideas obstruct new ones.” Once we see the problem in a different light, solving it is a piece of cake. Our challenge is to look beyond what’s in front of us and see what’s unusual about the usual.

Take steps, not leaps
The people who solved Duncker’s Candle Problem didn’t do so in one inspired leap. They tried many different ways of solving the problem — and failed at each one — before discovering the solution.

Such is the process of creation. It’s asking ourselves: Why doesn’t this work, and how can I fix it?

“Creating is taking steps, not making leaps,” Ashton writes. “Find a problem, solve it, and repeat. The most steps wins. The best artists, scientists, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other creators are the ones who keep taking steps by finding new problems, new solutions, and then new problems again. The root of innovation is exactly the same as it was when our species was born: looking at something and thinking, ‘I can make this better.’”

Embrace failure
Failure is the best teacher there is, and ultimately, it’s the pathway to success. Writes Ashton: “Innovation is whatever remains when all our failures are removed.”

Roll up your sleeves. Get to work. Try, then try again … and again … and again. Give yourself permission to fail, and don’t give up.

Do that and you will be a creator, an innovator, a leader … and you will be remembered.


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