The Truth about How Creativity Really Works

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom…is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” — Anthony Bourdain

On March 20, 1997, a quiet crowd settled into the Old Post Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery for the memorial service of Colonel John Boyd.

John Boyd was a fighter pilot. For nearly a decade, Boyd had a standing challenge with the best pilots in the world that he could beat any of them in an aerial dog fight in less than 40 seconds. He never lost. He was Forty Second Boyd.

John Boyd was the greatest military strategist of the 20th century. For those who have studied his theories, Boyd is tossed around in the same sentences as Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz. Some see a direct intellectual lineage running from Sun Tzu to Genghis Khan to Miyamoto Musashi to Mao Tse Tung to John Boyd.

Former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles C. Krulak said in the aftermath of the Gulf War that “The Iraqi army collapsed morally and intellectually under the onslaught of American and Coalition forces. John Boyd was an architect of that victory as surely as if he’d commanded a fighter wing or a maneuver division in the desert.”

Despite being admired by many for his strategic thinking, Boyd is not well known. Why?

Boyd wrote almost none of his theories down. In an over forty year career, he left only a half dozen written artifacts and none were formally published.

Boyd’s work focused on how the military could adapt from the highly centralized 19th and early 20th century wars between large nation states to the reality that began for the U.S. with Vietnam: a guerilla-style war between incumbent central governments and insurgent guerilla forces.

What can startups learn from a military strategist?

His work has gradually spread into the business and particularly startup sphere because it provides one of the best explanations of how creativity, innovation and disruption actually happen.

The answers behind how insurgent startups seize market share from incumbent corporations are not very different from how insurgent guerrillas seize territory from incumbent central governments.

The best starting point for understanding Boyd’s views on creativity and innovation is an essay called “Destruction and Creation.” It’s considered his most successful intellectual achievement and lays out a framework for how a smaller entity, be it guerilla fighters or a startup, can outcompete a vastly larger opponent.

At just seven pages, the writing has the density of plutonium.

Boyd spent four years working and refining the paper. He wanted every word to convey just the right meaning. He once spent three hours discussing the differences between “swirling” and “whirling” with his daughter who helped him publish the paper.

Destruction and Creation

Boyd starts the essay by asserting that “the fundamental goal of humans is to improve their capacity for independent action.”

Sometimes a person will sacrifice their personal liberty if the net benefit is an increase in their capacity for independent action.

For example, you might go into a partnership which added certain responsibilities you didn’t have before if the benefits of the partnership increased your capacity for independent action.

Paul McCartney gave up some creative liberty by collaborating with John Lennon, but the benefits made up for it.

In order to improve their capacity for independent action, people have to make decisions and take action. To make these decisions and move towards the goal, they need to have an accurate mental model of reality.

A more accurate model of reality leads to better actions and better decisions.

There are two ways of coming up with those models: deductively and inductively. You can start with a comprehensive whole and break it down into particulars (deductive) or start with particulars and build them up into a comprehensive whole (inductive.)

Destruction is related to deduction, taking the big parts and breaking them down into constituent pieces.

Creation is related to induction, synthesis, and integration. It’s taking the little bits and re-building them into a coherent whole.

In order to be useful, the creative synthesis has to accurately represent reality in a way that increases capacity for independent action.

Boyd used a thought experiment to show how destruction and creation lead to creativity.

Imagine a motorboat towing a skier behind it, a tank, and bicycle.

If you break them down into the constituent parts, you have

  1. a motorboat with a hull, outboard motor, and a set of skis being towed behind it;
  2. a tank with treads, a gun, and armor; and
  3. a bicycle with wheels, handlebars, and gears.

You can rebuild these constituent parts into many different incoherent wholes, but a coherent and useful whole would be a snowmobile — treads from the tank, an outboard motor and skis from the boat, and handlebars from the bike.

Snowmobiling, Boyd’s term, is how Creativity really happens. It is destructive deduction combined with creative synthesis.

However, what happens after you have a creative insight?

The tendency is that once you create a coherent conceptual system that explains reality, you turn inwards to refine the system within itself and work out the details.

In the case of a snowmobile, you might start refining the way the treads are designed or the layout of the handlebars. You might start refining how to drive one properly: there are effective techniques for driving a snowmobile that aren’t effective for a motorboat, tank, or bicycle.

Godel, Heisenberg and The Law of Shitty Clickthroughs.

However, Boyd saw that the act of defining reality changes reality. To speak truth is to create falsehood.

When you create a new conceptual system, then reality reacts to that system.

In the startup world, one way this shows up is the Law of Shitty Clickthroughs:

Over time, all marketing strategies result in shitty clickthrough rates.

In 1994, a display ad might get a 70% clickthrough rate. Display ad clickthrough rates are now in the neighborhood of 0.05%.

When users have never seen a display ad on the internet, it’s interesting and novel. On the web in ’94, ads were a good way to find new sites. The idea of “search” didn’t exist yet: Alta Vista, much less Google, had not been founded.

Boyd believed this phenomenon was predicted by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

In the same way Heisenberg discovered that an observer cannot simultaneously know the velocity and position of a particle in spacetime, an observer can never have a fully accurate conceptual system because the act of getting an accurate understanding necessarily shifts the reality being observed.

The degree to which the observer intrudes on reality determines the degree of accuracy. More intrusive means less accurate.

In the context of ads, this makes sense. As people see more ads, the click through rate goes down faster. The very first ad you saw on the internet was cool and interesting. The 100,000th ad you saw was annoying and made you install ad blocking software.

The more action individuals take on the model of reality stating that “people like to click on banner ads,” the less accurate that model becomes.

Boyd believed that Gödel’s incompleteness theorem provided a solution.

According to Gödel, you can’t understand a system from within that system. Any self-consistent system cannot be proven to be self-consistent from within that system. In order to determine the consistency of a new system, we need to discover another system beyond it.

Godel gave the example of the liar’s paradox: If someone says “I am lying,” and they are actually lying, then they are actually telling the truth, which means they are actually lying. (I had read it again too)

In fact, any attempts to prove the system is consistent and matches up with reality actually generates even more disorder and uncertainty, and it makes the conceptual system less useful for increasing your capacity for independent action.

In 1998, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s You’ve Got Mail echoed the broad feeling of people at the time: it was cool to get email. People liked to open their email.

So we starting sending more email. Marketers in the late 90’s regularly saw 99% of their emails get opened. However, the more emails that got sent in an attempt to prove that people like to open their email, the less people liked to open their email.

Open rates for email today are around 15–25%.

This goes back to Heisenberg. If you try to more accurately figure out the position of a particle, its velocity becomes less predictable (and vice versa).

Any increase in an attempt to get a more aligned match-up of concept with reality just increases the misalignment and creates unexplained occurrences. When we try to force reality to fit our conceptual system, we create what Nassim Taleb has called “black swans” — dramatic and impactful events not predicted by the prevailing conceptual system.

In the run up to 2008, it was the prevailing belief that “people don’t default on their mortgages.” So lenders offered more mortgages and banks collateralized mortgage debt. The result? A lot of people defaulted on their mortgages and around $10 Trillion of wealth evaporated (about $30,000 per person).

In order to get a more accurate picture of reality and increase your capacity for independent action, you have to go snowmobiling again.

You have to destroy the existing conceptual system and rebuild it through creative induction and synthesis.

By going outside of the existing system, you get out of the catch-22 and get a more accurate picture of reality.

However, as soon as you do this and starting using the new conceptual system, you get an increase in disorder and ambiguity. The cycle repeats.

In order to maintain a high capacity for independent action, you have to constantly destroy your existing conceptual system and resynthesize from the constituent parts.

Silent Risk and The Maginot Line

Earlier thinkers than Boyd had noticed a shift away from a deterministic, mechanical world view towards a more subtle, holistic, and organic view driven by the scientific discoveries of the early 21st century: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.

However, Boyd was the first to tie them together with a succinct explanation of how these discoveries should change the way we interact with reality.

Not much of the world has caught up to Boyd’s. We are repeatedly taught “formulas” and shown their track records of success as evidence that they will work in the future.

Few understand and fewer acknowledge that following a formula that worked in the past is not only less likely to work, but often results in black swans.

Said another way: we tend to focus too much on the precise at the expense of the general.

After the First World War, the French spent a huge amount of time and money building the Maginot Line, a giant string of fortresses, along the previous Germain invasion route to prevent future attacks.

The Germans went around it almost effortlessly.

Had the French built the Maginot Line before the First World War, it would have been effective, but the occurrence of the first world war and the building of the wall changed reality.

The Germans used a new model, blitzkrieg, and rolled over the French army in a matter of weeks.

The Maginot Line was worse than useless — it hurt the French.

If they had not built the Maginot Line, they would have been more conscious of other possible routes of attack and better able to defend against them.

The French couldn’t go snowmobiling. They couldn’t destroy the conceptual system they’d built based on the First World War: that the Germans would attack using trench warfare directly from the East.

The more they believed this to be true and the more they built up the Maginot Line, the less likely it was to actually happen.

We are conditioned to behave like the French — we create silent risks in our everyday lives.

Most schools and companies teach their students and employees formulas, creating the same false sense of security that the French had in the 1930’s. This often leaves them in worse shape than if they’d never learned them in the first place.

As the world moves faster and faster, we don’t need more formulas.

We need to improve our ability to change our minds based on a changing reality.

I cover some of the new trends that are emerging right now and how you can leverage them to create more money, meaning and freedom in your life and the lives of those you love in my book The End of Jobs. You can download the first three chapters free.

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