I remember years ago, as I made my way through the educational system, what a bad rap “memorization” got. “We teach students to be creative, analytical thinkers – not to regurgitate facts and figures learned through rote memorization!” Ah, the battlecry of the modern educator.
And why not? Indeed, the most challenging problems of today – things like climate change, social justice, and intercultural collaboration – are going to require creativity above all.
But where, exactly, does creativity come from? If I asked you to define “creativity,” what would you say? That it’s the ability to produce original and innovative ideas or solutions? The use of imagination to generate something new and unique?
Well, let me break it to you: there’s very little truly new under the sun.
In fact, every creative, innovative, or unique idea you’ve ever seen – or will ever see – is built on the backs of every one to come before it. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there’s nothing new or original being created today. Far from it. I’m just saying that, in fact, creativity is the art of combining, expanding, and reimagining the world around us in new and unique ways.
It’s the art of reducing things (materials, ideas, tools, behaviors, etc) to their bare minimum, isolating their parts, and recombining them like nobody’s ever done before. That’s all, when you really think about it. Put thusly, then, creativity is when you break down and merge mobile technology with social psychology to create that killer new app. When you apply a little-known legal precedent to prove that your client is, in fact, innocent. Or when you invoke powerful Soviet-era typography and color schemes to modern day advertising campaigns to create a lasting and powerful effect.
And yes, creativity is also using a fascinating and new medium like 3D printing to create everything from prosthetics to dresses.
In order to use, combine, and reimagine these things… don’t you first have to, uh, know about them? Don’t you have to put in the hours remembering all of the specifications and limitations to building that app? The esoteric and bizarre legal precedents you’re sure you’ll never use? And the historic events that create a holistic understanding of seemingly mundane color palettes?
Sure, you could look all that up.
But true genius? True creativity? That ability to pull an impossible solution out of seeming thin air?
That comes exclusively from the messy, complex intermingling of thousands – no, millions – of thoughts, ideas, understandings, concepts, neurons, and, yes, memories miraculously intertwining in that impressive 10-pound mass we call the human brain. Of course, if you’re like most people, you probably believe that you have a so-called “lousy” memory.
Well, let me assure you: you don’t.
In fact, about a third of your memory is determined by genetics or wetware. I’ve interviewed world record holders, national memory champions, and seeming superhumans from all over the world, and literally none of them have claimed to have an “extraordinary” memory.
So what comprises the other two-thirds?
Technique. And knowing how to properly use your brain. This means using two-thousand year old methods – methods used to memorize everything from The Odyssey to the Old Testament – to enhance the brain’s ability to memorize new information. And while it might sound incredibly difficult (and is probably a bit too involved to go into in any detail here)… it really isn’t.
Use creative, visual imagination. Connect to existing knowledge. Emphasize novelty and originality. That’s really it. And yes – anyone can do it. Just like creativity. But it all starts with memory. The basic building block of understanding. And, I believe, the most critical component of true creativity.