To Unlock Creativity, Learn from Steve Jobs

This column is adapted from The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success (McGraw-Hill, October 2010).

The company name "Apple" fell from a tree, literally dropping right into Steve Jobs's vision of what a computer should be: simple and approachable. Although Jobs had dropped out of Reed College in Portland, he returned to Oregon periodically to share ideas with like-minded people in a Zen-influenced commune called the All-One Farm where they grew—you guessed it—apples.

On one trip, Jobs made a seemingly inconsequential observation, an innovation with a "small i." However, his idea provides an A-level course in brand identity. Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak had decided to start their own company with $1,000. They just needed a name to make the partnership complete. As Wozniak tells the story, "I remember I was driving Steve back from the airport along Highway 85. Steve was coming back from a visit to Oregon to a place he called an 'apple orchard.' Steve suggested a name—Apple Computer…. We both tried to come up with technical-sounding names that were better, but we couldn't think of any good ones. Apple was so much better, better than any other name we could think of. So Apple it was. Apple it had to be." The story of Steve Jobs and the apple orchard gives us an early glimpse into how Jobs's mind works.

Psychologists have spent years trying to discover the answer to the question: "What makes innovators different?" In one of the most thorough examinations of the subject, Harvard researchers spent six years and interviewed 3,000 executives to find out. According to the Harvard research, the No.1 skill that separates innovators from noncreative professionals is "associating"—the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields. The three-year Harvard research project confirms what Jobs told a reporter 15 years earlier: "Creativity is just connecting things."

This notion of making creative associations through seeking out new experiences is worth exploring more closely, as it plays a significant role in the way Steve Jobs has generated one innovative product after another, and another, and another. Jobs is a classic iconoclast, one who aggressively seeks out, attacks, and overthrows conventional ideas. And iconoclasts, especially the successful ones, have an "affinity for new experiences," according to esteemed Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns.

exposure to novel people and places

Jobs doesn't see things differently from the rest of us. Jobs perceives things differently. Vision is not the same as perception; perception separates the innovator from the imitator. Vision is the process by which photons of light hit the photoreceptive cells of the eye's retina and get transmitted as neural impulses to different parts of the brain. Perception, as Berns points out, "is the much more complex process by which the brain interprets these signals." Dozens of individuals saw the graphical user interface at the Xerox PARC facility in Palo Alto, but it was Jobs who [in 1979] perceived it differently. He had an epiphany, a massive jolt of creativity.

The key to "thinking differently" is to perceive things differently through the lenses of a trailblazer. And to see things through these lenses, you must force your brain to make connections it otherwise would have missed. When Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, it was such a novel experience that it ignited his creativity. When Jobs spent time meditating in an apple orchard, he experienced something new and it led to some creative insights. When Jobs visited India in the 1970s, he experienced something radically different from his life in a California suburb. And when Jobs hired musicians, artists, poets, and historians [to build the Macintosh], he was exposing himself to new experiences and novel ways of looking at a problem. Some of Jobs's most creative insights are the direct result of novel experiences either in physical locations or among the people with whom he chose to associate.

Does Steve Jobs see things differently? Yes. Is this skill unique to Jobs? No. You can learn to be more creative as long as you keep in mind that your brain will fight you every step of the way. By pursuing new experiences and thinking differently about common problems, you are asking your brain to expend energy when its natural role is to conserve as much as energy as possible. It's not easy, but by forcing yourself out of your comfort zone—physically and mentally—you will kick-start the firing of synapses, improving the odds of generating new ideas that have the potential of transforming your business and your life.

Adapted from The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs by Carmine Gallo. Published by permission of McGraw-Hill.

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