Discover more from Startup Builder by Henrik Angelstig
Creative people start with more dots to connect
How creative people stack the game in their favor – without you even knowing
Entrepreneurs understand the need to be creative better than most. Our very survival depends on doing more with less in ways others overlook.
But how do you “get creative”?
A Google search reveals some common advice:
“Let your mind wander”
“Have many different hobbies and interests”
“Pick an object, say a brick, and think of as many alternative use cases for it as you can”
These points aren’t wrong. In fact, they work very well!
But why do these suggestions make you more creative?
And how can you use that insight to more creatively solve the challenges in your startup?
That’s the topic of this essay.
What is “creativity”?
First, let’s define what creativity is.
Creativity is just connecting the dots. Every invention, artwork, or creation is just a collection of raw materials – “dots” – connected in a certain way.
But one must also connect the dots in ways different from what’s gone before. No one would label an artist who connects the same dots in the same way “creative”.
Still, you can be different without being creative. Henry Royce made the Rolls-Royce by improving quality in every aspect of the car. The result was dramatically different and better. But not necessarily creative.
There are actually two kinds of different: intensity and novelty. You can be enormously successful by connecting the same dots with more intensity. But only novel connections are creative.
But novelty alone is not enough. We have all seen artworks that are unquestionably unique, but that are simply weird.
As an example, look at the two images below.
Which artwork would you say is more creative?
Most will probably pick the banana dolphins to the right. It transforms a plain fruit into something new, even pretty, in a way that’s surprisingly delightful.
The painting on the left, in contrast, is more of a hodgepodge of disparate stuff. It’s somewhat interesting. But it evokes more questions than positive emotions.
The second piece of creativity is value. The connection must fill a need that makes the dots more than the sum of their parts.
Resourcefulness is one way to create value. A hacker who achieves the same task with just 20 lines of code – that previously took 200 lines – is creative.
But addition sometimes creates value too. Why did Harry Potter become a more creative story as J.K. Rowling added more characters and details?
Because adding more characters to the same universe created a network effect.
If the story just included Harry and Voldemort, there are very few interactions that can happen. But as the number of characters increase linearly, the number of possible interactions increase exponentially.
The mental cost of keeping track of one more character is thus far less than the entertainment value that character adds – assuming the author makes those interactions interesting.
The J.K. Rowling example highlights three key points about creativity:
Creativity makes new connections. Not new dots. J.K. Rowling didn’t invent new personality traits to create her characters. She just connected existing traits and features in new ways.
Connections must leverage the unique qualities of the dots. J.K. Rowling leveraged the unique quality of each trait by connecting them into interesting characters. She then further leveraged each character by connecting them into interesting interactions.
Connections must add more value than they take. Had the interactions of any character reduced the reader’s net interest in the story, it would have been better to leave that character out.
When a connection is both novel and valuable, we call it creativity.
In short, my definition of creativity is this:
“Creativity is connecting the dots in new ways that birth leverage.”
Most new ideas don’t work
Creativity = Novelty x Value is simple in theory. But it’s devilishly hard in practice.
That’s because the intersection between novelty and value is microscopically small.
Hitting upon a creative idea is like an archer trying to hit the intersection of two gigantic targets – but whose overlap is the width of a pinky finger. Hitting any of the two targets Novelty or Value is easy. But hitting the overlap is near impossible.
The best way to improve your odds of a creative “hit” is therefore to take more shots – i.e generate more ideas.
If the odds of a creative hit is 1%, a person who takes 100 shots has a 63% chance of one of them hitting the creative sweet spot.
An idea is born when you “connect the dots”.
But most people stumble because they start with too few diverse dots to connect.
The player who starts with the most number of diverse dots wins
Imagine a product-building contest using LEGO bricks.
There are two players: A and B. Each player gets a box of LEGO bricks to work with. And every “product” – a unique combination of LEGO bricks – has a 1% chance of being commercially viable.
Whoever comes up with the most number of successful products wins.
But here’s the catch.
Player A’s box only has four LEGO pieces, all black squares.
Player B’s box has a hundred LEGO pieces, in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors.
This game is so clearly stacked that B will win every single time.
Now imagine the spectators celebrating B as a “creative genius!”. An “inventor without equal!” The very notion would seem absurd.
B wasn’t more creative because of talent.
For all we know, Player A might actually be twice as good at connecting dots in novel ways.
Player B was more creative because she started with more dots to connect.
This imaginative LEGO contest is also how the game of creativity is played in real life. But with one key difference:
In real life, the LEGOs are invisible elements hidden in one’s brain.
That is why one person may seem more creative than another. It’s often not that they have a superior ability to synthesize elements in novel ways.
They simply stack the game in their favor by first retrieving many more dots from their memory.
The player who retrieves the most dots from their memory wins.
The human brain – Library and Workspace
We can roughly divide the human brain into two types of memory:
The long-term memory is like a vast library – with millions of diverse “mental LEGO bricks” available for creative assembly. However, it’s a cold storage. The brain won’t start connecting these dots without prompting. 📚🧊
The working memory is like a tiny workspace – where we can consciously hold, modify, and combine ideas in new ways. This is the hot zone where much of the “connecting of dots” takes place. 🔥💡
The problem is just how incredibly tiny our mental workspace is. Research estimates that our working memory can hold only about 4 “chunks” at the same time – a chunk being a grouping of 3-5 items.
What’s more, we can typically only retrieve one item at a time from our long-term memory.
Imagine you had access to a swimming pool full of LEGO bricks, but you could only retrieve them with a pair of chopsticks. 🥢
Then, you could only connect as many LEGOs at the same time as can fit inside a teacup. ☕️
That’s the creative challenge we face with our brains.
Retrieve dots faster – anchor and association
So if the main obstacle is starting with too few dots, how can we speed up the process of retrieving more dots from our long-term memory?
The key is to use what I call anchor and association.
The human brain is wired to think in terms of associations. If I say the word “kitchen”, you’ll likely start thinking of words like “knife”, “fork”, “fridge”, “cooking”, “frying pan”, etc.
In this example, “kitchen” serves as the anchor. All the other items are associations to that anchor.
Anchor and association is like throwing out a small net in the LEGO pool – and fishing out all adjacent LEGOs in small batches at a time.
But to fish enough dots from the pool, you need to use multiple anchors.
ACE+S: Attributes, Components, Environment & Similarities
Let’s say you want to discover creative ideas for a banana. 🍌
To first generate enough dots, I recommend viewing the banana from three different types of anchors:
Attributes: What words would I use to describe a banana?
Components: What component parts is a banana made of?
Environments: Where and when can one find bananas?
You then create three separate lists – one for each anchor – and write down as many words you can think of using each anchor.
Finally, each word you came up with is used as a new anchor, and where you write down all Similarities to that word.
As example, here are my three lists of words:
Now that we have lots of diverse dots, then – and only then – are we start connecting them.
Most connections won’t work!
Personally, I wasn’t able to find any ideas that were novel and valuable from the following connections:
Banana + Perfume = ???
Banana + Rain = ???
Banana + Coral reef = ???
But some of my connections turned out to be much more interesting!
Banana + Butter = An organic, low-fat, and vegan alternative to normal butter. 🧈 (Already a few companies doing this).
Banana + Office = A service that delivers ready-made fruit bowls to corporate offices on a subscription basis. 🚚💨 (SnackNation among others has already built a business of this idea).
Banana + Blanket = A portable baby bed resembling a banana, where the blanket is the “banana peel”. 🛌
Banana + Ice cream = Make “banana popsicles” by putting wooden pins in them, dipping the bananas in chocolate, and freezing them.🍦 (Turns out that tons of people on Pinterest had this idea before me).
Banana + Swamp = Could there be “worthless” swamplands that actually can be turned into profitable banana plantations? 🌴
Had you just asked me to “come up with creative ideas for a banana” – I’d have been stumped.
But by first generating more dots, I had more dots to connect.
And some of those connections inevitably turn out to be rather interesting!
Subscribe for free to get more posts like this.
Force yourself to work with bad ideas – they are adjacent to great ones
In her TED Talk The little risks you can take to increase your luck, professor Tina Seeling shares how she helps students be more creative by forcing them to work with terrible ideas.
After sorting her students into groups, she asks each group to come up with the worst idea for, say, a restaurant.
Some ideas her students generated were:
A restaurant in a garbage dump.
A restaurant that serves cockroaches.
A restaurant with terrible service.
Next, the groups are asked to switch ideas with each other, and to make the “bad” ideas into something good.
Within a few minutes, some student always bursts out: “This is a great idea!”
When forced to work with terrible ideas, the students always find ways to transform them into something good:
The restaurant in a garbage dump?
It became a restaurant that salvages the groceries thrown out from nearby grocery stores.
The restaurant that serves cockroaches?
It transformed into a restaurant that serves dishes with all sorts of exotic ingredients.
The restaurant with terrible service?
It turned into a training camp that helps restauranters learn all the mistakes to avoid.
By starting from seemingly “bad combinations” of dots – you end up connecting dots that no one else thought of.
”Bad” ideas are always adjacent to great ones.
Why the creativity hacks work
Let’s return to the common creativity advice:
“Let your mind wander”
“Have many different hobbies and interests”
“Pick an object and think of as many alternative use cases for it as you can”
“Write your thoughts down”
“Don’t dismiss new ideas just because they seem bad”
“Force yourself to work with terrible ideas”
What is the common theme these tips share?
They all help you retrieve more diverse dots to connect.
They nudge you to connect the dots you never connected before.
That’s why these creativity hacks work.
Any creativity hack that follows one of these two principles will work.
Creativity = Novelty x Value.
But because the intersection between Value and Novelty is so small, most attempts at creative ideas don’t work.
That’s why you just need to generate as many ideas as possible. And new ideas come from connecting dots in new ways.
But to make a lot of new connections – you must first start with lots of dots to connect.
Your long-term memory already contains millions of dots. But they are all in cold storage. Only by bringing them out into the “hot zone” of your working memory can you start connecting them in new ways.
To be more creative in your own startup, pick one or two aspects of your business you’d like to innovate on. Then, use the ACE+S framework to generate as many related words as possible.
By starting with more diverse dots than your competitors, you stack the creative game in your favor.
In my next post, I’ll explain how to improve your odds of finding connections between your dots that are not just novel – but also valuable.
Recommendation for another newsletter! 📝
Great founders know the best startup tools, opportunities, and lessons from other founders. But the smart ones don't waste their time looking for these resources themselves.
Instead, the intelligent founder subscribes to the Exponential Founder newsletter by Dovydas Radavičius.
Every 2 weeks, he searches for the best startup resources and founder lessons – and then compiles it all into a 3-min newsletter that lands directly in your inbox. His crisp posts are packed with valuable resources that help founders work smarter, not harder!