Below are excerpts from an article by David Kirsh, published in 2014, about the role of chance, luck, and random exploration in the creative process. I know that many people who are experienced at creative work are familiar with these ideas already, and use them daily, but I’m posting this for the benefit of the younger and less experienced who are sometimes creatively paralyzed when fresh ideas don’t magically pop into their heads unaided. Kirsh certainly isn’t the first to address the subject, but this article is among the more thorough examinations of it that I’ve seen. One revelation to me in the article is that, contrary to the popular myth, Mozart apparently did not create fully formed works entirely in his head. He noodled on a keyboard, just like mere mortals do, in order to form musical ideas.
I have always found that the best creative ideas in my own work come from random exploration of the real, physical world around me and from random listening to parts of sound libraries that have little or nothing to do, nominally, with what I think I’m looking for.
A link to the full article is at bottom. I apologize for the odd formatting of paragraphs in the excerpts. So far the WordPress editing tools are resisting my efforts to correct it.
From “The Role Of Chance Events In Creativity” by David Kirsh:
“My starting assumption is that creative thinking, whether in science, art or sense- making, is not something that occurs solely in the head — the internalist view. In most cases, creativity depends on an interactive cycle of working with artifacts, re-acting to interim changes in the environment and then interacting again. Humans think interactively (Kirsh and Maglio 1994; Hollan et al. 2000; Clark 2006; Cowley and Vallée-Tourangeau 2010). Mozart, for example, has been held as an exemplar of internalist creativity because he once allegedly wrote, “Provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost finished and complete in my mind” (published in Rochlitz 1815). He is now thought to have worked interactively, typically needing a piano or harpsichord, the letter now discredited as forged (Keefe 2006).
Internalist accounts of thinking tend to treat thought as if it were inner speech or some other form of internal imagery (visual, musical or kinesthetic). This makes it seem that thought is exclusively under the control of the person doing the thinking, much like our choice of words seems to be under our control when we speak, a view that downplays the mutuality holding between thinkers and the environment they are embedded in. Yet what happens outside a brain often affects what happens inside. What we perceive and what we attend to inevitably prime and trigger associations that bias what we think next. Creativity does not occur in a situational vacuum. While we’re busy thinking one idea, the world moves on. Depending on what happens, that next-world state may capture our attention and take a causal lead in what we subsequently think. People do not always uniquely determine their thought trajectory, so it is good to surround ourselves with pro- vocative material — even if self-generated. Indeed, so tightly linked are we to our surrounds that nature would have missed a trick if it had not evolved us to make the most of our dynamic partnership. Just as our bodies co-evolved with our biome, so too have our brains co-evolved with the materials we create. Humans are nature’s finest niche constructors, and we keep changing things moment by moment.
When we examine creative acts — making a humorous comment or gesture, solving a challenging problem, interpreting a musical sequence, seeing unexpected possibilities in a statement — these and a thousand other creative things are processes that typically involve agent–environment interaction.
Individual creativity is standardly treated as an ‘internalist’ process occurring solely in the head. An alternative, more interactionist view is presented here,
where working with objects, media and other external things is seen as a fundamental component of creative thought.
Chance has a privileged role in creativity. It can be used to thwart bias, overcome the drive to imitate past solutions, and stimulate new ideas.
Past success is the enemy. Familiarity is the enemy. In design companies a materials shed, sometimes called an ideas cart, is often relied on for stimulation during the ideation phase of design. A materials shed is a collection of artifacts like mechanisms, fabrics, patterns, iconic designs and toys or gadgets that a designer, in the early part of research, is encouraged to visit. Viewing the thousands of items filling the shed, someone in search of inspiration might respond to an odd metallic texture, an unusual gear configuration, a suction device or a piece of fabric.
The aspect that triggers interest need not be an element that would ever work in the final design or a part of something central to the design. Its role is to provoke an idea that had not been considered before, an idea that helps the designer realign how he or she thinks or that arouses consideration of candidates outside the norm. This operates quite differently than another familiar strategy: using pictures, written description and physical examples of available solutions, where the reverse effect often happens. Past ideas, or idea analogs, become fixated. The reviewed solutions bias thinkers to look for variants on existing solutions or to use existing search spaces, rather than invent new ones.
The bottom line for creatives is that incorporating chance into one’s creative method is not an admission of inadequacy; it is often theoretically the best that can be done. As the saying goes, if you can’t walk in the right direction, sometimes it’s enough to walk randomly. This holds true in Scrabble, in computer science, in evolution and, with a twist, likely in most areas of intellectual endeavor. Oddly, having access to randomness is one way we are better off than the angels: Because we are embedded in the material world, we can use physical things and chance mechanism exploiting a physical principle in an uncommon way to overcome our natural bias for preconceived order. Chance elevates the soul by grounding it in matter.”
Entire article: https://escholarship.org/content/qt9zv112f5/qt9zv112f5.pdf