He was one of the giants of literature, but he thought inventors, and all creatives, got way more credit than they deserved.
The American writer Mark Twain lived at a time of great technological innovation. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the telegraph was new to the world, the railways were transforming the country.
But Twain thought all the kudos and adulation inventors got was way over the top:
“It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did.
These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.” – Mark Twain
I think this points to two common mistakes people make when it comes to creativity and innovation.
The first is that we tend to treat creativity and inspiration as sort of magical things, when, in reality, the truth is more mundane. More often than not, it is just the final part added to ninety-nine, to bring an idea into reality.
We add the cherry on top. The sundae has already been made.
So I think that if we find ourselves faced with a ‘creative’ task, say you’ve got to decorate a new living area or landscape the backyard – then we think it must require some massive creative effort – a huge dreaming that calls into existence something that has never existed before.
We put too much of the burden on our own shoulders, not realising that 99% of the work has already been done for us.
If we’re trying to do more than our 1%, then we’re over-reaching.
So your job is not to call down some divinely inspired piece of radical creativity. It’s to move the creative drive of humanity forward another little inch, that’s all.
The other part of this is that if we think creativity is all about us, and about what we can magically call down from the heavens, then we will underestimate the work that has come before us.
As the saying goes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Where you stand on those shoulders matter.
So you might be thinking, no one has ever put a toilet in a kitchen before. It’s radical, bold, innovative and creative. I’m going to do it.
But with a little research, you’d probably realise that people have attempted ridiculous things like that in the past, and it didn’t work out. There are actually some very good reasons behind our tendency to isolate toilets in their own little rooms. It’s not for a lack of creative thinking.
More often than not, when you look into it, there are good reasons behind the way we do most things in life.
But if you ignore that, if you think you can ignore the 99%, and just focus on your own brilliant 1%, you’ll be turning your back on a collective wealth of wisdom.
And you’ll probably make some pretty dumb mistakes.
So creativity – it’s not as complex or as taxing as you think it might be.
And research – do your research. Make sure you understand your field. Don’t just think creativity means flying off in your own directions with no regard for the status quo.
It’s fine to break rules and break the mould, but make sure you really understand the rules and the mould first.
Oh yeah, and be modest. Modesty would help with all of this.
But we’re all kind of a lost cause there.