How To Harness Combinatory Creativity

The Thames from Richmond Hill, a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds

English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds considered creativity a combinatory process:

Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory. Nothing can come of nothing. He who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations.

Source: 1769 address to the Royal Academy

Creativity as combination is a powerful framing because it lowers the bar for starting. It doesn’t require you to create something out of nothing, merely to connect interesting pieces of other people’s work. As a matter of fact, that’s the exact approach I’m taking in my writing.

If our capacity to invent correlates with the inputs we’ve fed our minds, it follows that we should put great care in selecting and organizing those inputs.

As David Epstein argues in his book Range, it pays to get exposed to a variety of inputs, but keep in mind that quality matters as much as quantity.

Here’s a rule of thumb: Look for content that went through an editorial process. On average, a book is better than a blog post, which is better than a tweet. A documentary is better than a YouTube video, which is better than a TickTock.

Once you’ve collected them, it pays to organize your inputs effectively. After all, being unable to recall something is the same as not knowing that in the first place.

Recently, “second brain” systems have become quite popular. If you’re curious about them, a good place to start is Sönke Ahrens’s book How To Take Smarter Notes. But don’t sweat the details too much. The only requirement is being able to search through the ideas you’ve stored.

Unfortunately, neither range of inputs nor their effective recall can guarantee remarkable creativity. Luck plays a significant role in the process, too, both for how your work is received and in the kind of sources you come across to. Sticking to this approach, though, is a sound strategy to at least increase your luck surface area.

Let the best and most diverse images deposit in your memory, then get out and shake them up a bit. You never know in which interesting combination they might rearrange.


Hat tip to Dense Discovery for the quote. Cover image: The Thames from Richmond Hill by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

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