Great moments in Mankind’s history- Einstein’s revaluations about the relationship of space and time; Newton’s epiphany about gravity; Steve Job’s development of “useable” technology; Tim Berners-Lee and the innovation of hyperlinks-countless other moments when the clouds parted, the blinding rays of innovation shown directly into the grey matter of some contemplative individual, and the world was forever changed.
We have, really since the enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, kept this idea surrounding the inspiration of genius. Great thinkers, in contemplative moments of solitude, reach the epiphany which had for so long eluded them. Artists retreat within their own heads and visualize their masterpieces. Engineers create complex systems after periods of self-imposed seclusion.
I have never really stopped to consider this meme. Until recently I watched a TED talk on the topic of creativity. Steven Johnson explodes the notion of quiet genius speaking about the idea of a “Liquid Network.” Mr. Johnson’s overarching point, and a subject of his new book Where Good Ideas Come From is essentially that creativity is most often a child of chaos. Rather than some secluded, Nostradamus-like wizard hermit, innovators and creators operation in bustling workshops and labs, chaotic, one might say.
Another interesting point (a little tangential to this post, but I thought cool as heck so I’m going to talk about it) was how Western Civilization, particularly northern Europe and most specifically Britain, became a hub of creativity, innovation, and invention. The War of the Roses concluded in 1485 with Henry Tudor’s tenuous (at best) claim to the English throne being solidified with a victory over Richard III. At this time, the Renaissance was flowering in southern Europe. The great masters in Italy, France, and the low Countries were churning out art the likes of which mankind had never seen. Spain and Portugal were forging the first overseas colonial empires. Little England sat a little considered backwater, still mired in the byzantine intrigues of Middle Ages. But over the course of the next 100+ years, something changed. A cultural shift that would help this little island become the world superpower, and mother of the industrial revolution. What was it? Mr. Johnson gives a lot of credit to the English putting down the bottle, and picking up the cup. From beer and ale, to coffee and tea.
Huh? Take a moment to think about it. It makes a lot of sense. Prior to Britain’s forays to the east, the most common beverage amongst the English populace was beer. The water at the time wasn’t always safe to drink, so the alternative was the fermented stuff. Breakfast, noon, and night. Man, woman, and child, all consumers of the stuff. But as the nation forged trade routes (and eventually colonial empires) to the east, tea and coffee came on the scene. Rather than a populace that was groggy most of the day, the nation was then filled with caffeinated Englishmen ready to seize the day. This may be overplaying it a bit, but you can’t deny the advent of caffeine becoming a dominant beverage in the isles coincides nicely with English emergence into the Enlightenment.
To circle back, you don’t exactly think of calm, reflective moments when you think of coffee drinkers. The ideas and creativity that flowed from English Coffee houses did bring about the Enlightenment culture that eventually engulfed most of northern Europe. The coffee houses were chaotic places, full of bombast and quite frankly just a lot of “stuff” going on everywhere. These environments were the breading ground for creative ideas.
Taking my own business – the ad agency – I can attest to this. We joke about creative staff fooling around and then making the claim that they are “concepting,” but quite honestly this is the truth. You can sit and stir on a problem or issue, and go round and round in your own head until you drive yourself crazy, or you can get involved in the chaos around you, from which the good ideas are usually conceived.
Credit for this blog post to Steven Berlin Johnson and a great TED Talk. I’m going to get coffee now.