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

Jun 4 · 7 min read
Sloww Combinatorial Creativity New Ideas
Sloww Combinatorial Creativity New Ideas
Source Content: Brain Pickings / Recolored: Sloww

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

On Creativity:

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

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

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.

Sloww Combinatorial Creativity Brain Pickings Infographic
Sloww Combinatorial Creativity Brain Pickings Infographic

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

Sloww Combinatorial Creativity Connected Mind Quote
Sloww Combinatorial Creativity Connected Mind Quote

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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