The Art of “New” Ideas: Combinatorial Creativity & Why Everything is a Remix

Jun 4 · 7 min read

I was first introduced to combinatorial creativity by Maria Popova, writer of the popular blog Brain Pickings.

Maria has read and written thousands of pieces of content over the last decade. I attempted to distill everything I’ve learned from her into my all-time, top-three learnings from Maria Popova.

One of those three key learnings was: Focus on Combinatorial Creativity in Work and Life.

What is Combinatorial Creativity?

Maria Popova is one of the greatest curators of our time (even though she isn’t a fan of the word curation itself). She’s an advocate for “information discovery,” “dot-connecting content curation,” “networked knowledge,” and “enablers of combinatorial creativity.”

At one point in my research I even saw the hashtag #curativity mentioned.

Here’s how Popova describes the curatorial process and combinatorial creativity in her own words (emphasis added in bold):

On Information Discovery & Information Curators:

“In an age of information overload, information discovery — the service of bringing to the public’s attention that which is interesting, meaningful, important, and otherwise worthy of our time and thought — is a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency.” — Maria Popova¹

  • “First things first — ‘curation’ is a terrible term. It has been used so frivolously and applied so indiscriminately that it’s become vacant of meaning. But I firmly believe that the ethos at its core — a drive to find the interesting, meaningful, and relevant amidst the vast maze of overabundant information, creating a framework for what matters in the world and why — is an increasingly valuable form of creative and intellectual labor, a form of authorship that warrants thought.” — Maria Popova²
  • “The role of information curators: They are our curiosity sherpas, who lead us to things we didn’t know we were interested in until we, well, until we are. Until we pay attention to them — because someone whose taste and opinion we trust points us to them, and we integrate them with our existing pool of resources, and they become a part of our networked knowledge.” — Maria Popova³
  • “We are a collage of our interests, our influences, our inspirations, all the fragmentary impressions we’ve collected by being alive and awake to the world. Who we are is simply a finely-curated catalogue of those.” — Maria Popova4

On Creativity:

“I believe creativity itself is the original open-source code.” — Maria Popova³

  • “To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.” — Maria Popova5

On Combinatorial Creativity:

“Here’s to filling our mental petri dishes with the best, most diverse and cross-disciplinary ideas possible, so we can be our best combinatorial mashup-selves.” — Maria Popova6

  • “In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces.” — Maria Popova³
  • “For as long as I can remember — and certainly long before I had the term for it — I’ve believed that creativity is combinatorial: Alive and awake to the world, we amass a collection of cross-disciplinary building blocks — knowledge, memories, bits of information, sparks of inspiration, and other existing ideas — that we then combine and recombine, mostly unconsciously, into something ‘new.’” — Maria Popova7
  • “All creativity builds upon something that existed before and every work of art is essentially a derivative work.” — Maria Popova³
  • “Something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.” — Maria Popova³

Maria Popova isn’t the only one acknowledging the fact that all creativity builds on what came before it. Kirby Ferguson and Austin Kleon are a couple other modern combinatorial creators.

Modern Combinatorial Creators: Kirby Ferguson (Everything is a Remix) & Austin Kleon (Steal Like An Artist)

Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson:

Everything we make is a remix of existing creations, our lives and the lives of others. — Kirby Ferguson

The most dramatic results can happen when ideas are combined. By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs. — Kirby Ferguson

Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon:

An artist is a collector. — Austin Kleon

I know something that a lot of artists know but few will admit to, and that is: nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before. — Austin Kleon

Want even more inspiration from modern combinatorial creators?

Chance favors the connected mind. — Steven Johnson

Creativity is simply the ability to connect the dots that others might never think to connect. — Carolyn Gregoire

Take two things. Take three. Combine them. Now you are the best in the world at the intersection. — James Altucher

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. — Vera John-Steiner

Combinatorial Creators of the Past

Since we’ve established that nothing is “new,” what can we learn from the great combinatorial creators of the past?

First, we must understand that eventually everything connects:

Eventually everything connects–people, ideas, objects…the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se. — Charles Eames

We need to learn how to see:

Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else. ― Leonardo da Vinci

Seeing must lead to thinking:

The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody yet has thought about that which everybody sees. — Arthur Schopenhauer

Thinking must lead to productive thought:

Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. — Albert Einstein

Ready to start? Find where the last person left off:

I readily absorb ideas from every source, frequently starting where the last person left off. — Thomas Edison

A good idea is never lost. Even though its originator or possessor may die without publicizing it, it will someday be reborn in the mind of another… — Thomas Edison

I’ll leave you with this inspirational letter Mark Twain penned to Helen Keller after she was accused of plagiarism:

As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify…It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, 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, letter to Helen Keller8


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