Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Eureka Myth: Why Darwin (not Draper) is the Right Model for Creative Thinking

creativity-600px-2by Cal Newport:  

The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”

In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!

The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience - and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.

This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened.

The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard

In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration. Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical. So he decided to look deeper.

In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity. This was really hard work.

The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom. But Hawking persisted.

And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat. There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again. 

The Eureka Myth

Mlodinow tells this story as one of many examples of scientific discoveries incorrectly portrayed as the result of sudden insight. (He also places Darwin’s finches and Newton’s apple in this category.)
There are many lessons that can be drawn from Mlodinow’s article, but there’s one in particular I want to highlight here: we need to rethink creativity.

This idea came to me soon after I read Mlodinow’s op-ed. Later that morning I was at Barnes & Noble, still thinking about his points, when I saw the table display pictured above. The two books placed right next to each other on the display, I realized, capture a fundamental rift in our culture’s thinking on creativity.

The bottom book, titled The Eureka Factor, explains, among other things, how to setup your environment to be more “conducive” to generating “creative insights” of the type portrayed in The Theory of Everything. The top book, titled Birth of a Theorem (which I bought and read this weekend), is written by the french mathematician Cedric Villani. It tells the tale (without undue exposition or elision) of how he came to solve the theorem that won him the 2010 Fields Medal.

The former promotes a Don Draper style story that we like to hear: if you’re willing to open yourself to your own genius, you’ll have eureka moments that change your life. The latter paints the Stephan Hawking style reality of what produces real creativity: hard won skills are put to work in a painstaking, obsessive way to uncover, one cognitive brush stroke at a time, something fundamentally new.

In an economy where creativity is becoming both more important and complicated,  I suspect we need to abandon the old ways of thinking about this type of thinking, with its conference room brainstorming sessions and markers on butcher paper, and instead discover what scientists knew along: creativity is hard, highly-skilled work that is often quite unromantic in its execution, but is ultimately a source of deeper satisfaction than any short-lived eureka moment could ever deliver.

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