Libraries, Structured Randomness and the Creative Process

Libraries, Structured Randomness and the Creative Process

Creativity occurs at the intersection of different ideas.

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It’s the art of looking at something new and applying its essence to something old. Randomness, therefore, assists greatly in the creative process. It’s hard to be extremely creative while sitting in a cubicle, staring at the same off-white wall and tired, thirsty plant. Because your mind isn’t synthesizing new information, you are limiting yourself to a tiny corpus of knowledge, like your stapler and your rubber bands. As my mother always tells me, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I know a bit about creativity. Throughout the past decade, my job title has morphed from “Director of Business Development” to “Technical Director” to “Creative Director” to “Founder” to “Director of Creative Innovation” to “Director of Innovation” to “Director of Brainstorming & Creativity” and back to “Founder”. And those are just titles on my resume.

That doesn’t include the scores of personal, professional, and celebrity clients I have consulted for in numerous official and unofficial contexts, the smaller projects I’ve undertaken for fun, or the years I spent researching the psychology behind creativity.

The secret to my creativity, the common thread that links everything mentioned above, is that most of my good ideas are really incubated in libraries.

It doesn’t matter if I am developing a new technology aimed at reducing stress in the workplace, ghostwriting a speech to be delivered in front of hundreds of CEOs, or composing a new short fiction story, the library is the place where I figure out what I am actually trying to solve. It’s where I learn the language of the new world I am encountering.

The library is also the place where you can experience complete randomness from one shelf to the next, or even from one book to the next. Thanks to the Dewey Decimal System, there is some logic as to why the books are in the same universe, but at times it is quite a jump.

What I’ve noticed is that at the beginning of the creative process I don’t even know what questions to ask. When someone asks you to design a wind-powered device to help power a city somewhere in Europe, how do you even start?

I stroll haphazardly through the stacks. I judge books by their covers and by the wittiness (or drollness) of their titles. I open them, turn to the table of contents and randomly learn facts about different cities, about weather patterns, about Scandinavian and Norwegian deities, about Latvian summer festivals, about local foods, about the changing local population and their social mores, about historic marketplaces, and the history of the city. I brainstorm with the librarian about finding some arcane statistics that complete the picture.

Something pops out. I see a connection. I jump down the rabbit hole and pull out another book on the same topic, and then a third. I’m suddenly sitting at a table surrounded by a mound of books and a notebook, furiously taking notes and drawing diagrams that will never be seen nor used again. Slowly, a new world comes to life in my mind, combining scores of information to uncover an entirely new perspective in clarifying the actual problem I’m trying to solve. I realize that my initial approach was completely wrong.

The problem I’m looking to solve isn’t powering a city with wind, it’s about how to revitalize local commerce in the city center, and wind energy just becomes a tool in the process. And from there, creating the proposal for the solution is simple. The facts I had culled about ancient deities and the local cuisine become intricate details in the design, only visible if you really know what you are looking for. But the product would look completely different if I had never learned about them.

In a library, any book can be the beginning of your creative journey and lead you to anywhere else, if you let it.