Creativity Is Not An Accident

[This is an excerpt from The Dance of the Possible: the mostly honest completely irreverent guide to creativity]

Many of our popular stories of discovery are portrayed as accidents or matters of luck. We love these stories as they make creativity seem easy and fun, regardless of how misleading they are.

A recent NYTimes opinion titled Cultivating The Art of Serendipity, by Pagan Kennedy, offered:

“A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. “

What’s overlooked is that these accidents were earned. Each of these professionals committed themselves to years of work chasing hard problems, and then, when an accident happened, they chose not to ignore it, as most of us would. They chose to study the accident. Who among us studies our accidents? We mostly run and hide from them. Being curious about our own mistakes is a far more interesting attitude for life than someone who merely chases serendipity. Capitalizing on ‘accidents’ is an excellent notion that Kennedy mentions, however briefly, and I wish it were the focus of the article.

A common pattern of the Myth of Epiphany is creativity by accident. The very idea of the Muse, forces that choose to grant ideas to us from above, externalizes creativity, and accidents have similar appeal. Since we’re all often victims of accidents, we’re compelled by stories that redeem accidents into breakthroughs. Newton watching an apple fall, an ordinary event anyone could observe, is perhaps the greatest example of this kind of misleading storytelling (it took him years of work to describe the mathematics of gravity regardless of the apple’s disputed epiphanistic potency).

Kennedy’s opening example continues the myth’s stereotype:

In 2008, an inventor named Steve Hollinger lobbed a digital camera across his studio toward a pile of pillows. “I wasn’t trying to make an invention,” he said. “I was just playing.” As his camera flew, it recorded what most of us would call a bad photo. But when Mr. Hollinger peered at that blurry image, he saw new possibilities. Soon, he was building a throwable videocamera in the shape of a baseball, equipped with gyroscopes and sensors.”

A quick read of Hollinger’s own page about the invention (called a Serveball) reveals important facts that distinguish him from most of us readers. The list includes:

  • He was a professional inventor and artist (successful enough to be profiled by Susan Orlean in The New Yorker in 2008)
  • He had a workshop for inventing things
  • He worked over the course of a year on this project (which Kennedy refers to as ‘soon’)
  • He built elaborate rigs capable of hosting multiple cameras

Hollinger stated “I was just playing” and I agree that play is a fantastic use of time and helpful towards developing skills for invention and creation for everyone. But it’s important to note that Hollinger’s idea of play is likely different from ours. It’s serious play. As the New Yorker described in 2008, this is no ordinary person:

He had spent the previous month mostly locked in his apartment, furiously teaching himself the principles of aerodynamics, the physics of hydrology, and the basics of how to operate a Singer sewing machine, and he was at last testing what he had been working on—a reimagined, reinvented umbrella, with gutters and airfoils and the elegant drift of a bird’s wing.

But Kennedy continues to emphasize accidents and randomness:

A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information.

Care to guess about the context these stumbles and accidents arrived in?

  • Microwave oven: In 1945 Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, discovered a candy bar that melted in his pocket near radar equipment. He chose to do a series of experiments to isolate why this happened and discovered microwaves. It would take ~20 years before the technology developed sufficiently to reach consumers.
  • Safety Glass: In 1903 scientist Edouard Benedictus, while in his lab, did drop a flask by accident, and to his surprise it did not break. He discovered the flask held residual cellulose nitrate, creating a protective coating. It would be more than a decade before it was used commercially in gas masks.
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Constantine Fahlberg, a German scientist, discovered Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, in 1879. After working in his lab he didn’t wash his hands, and at dinner discovered an exceptionally sweet taste. He returned to his lab, tasting his various experiments, until rediscovering the right one (literally risking his life in an attempt to understand his accident).
  • Smoke Detector: Walter Jaeger was trying to build a sensor to detect poison gas. It didn’t work, and as the story goes, he lit a cigarette and the sensor went off. It could detect smoke particles, but not gas. It took the work of other inventors to build on his discovery to make commercial smoke detectors.
  • X-Rays: Wilhelm Roentgen was already working on the effects of cathode rays during 1895, before he actually discovered X-rays. was a scientist working on cathode rays. On November 8, 1895, during an experiment, he noticed crystals glowing unexpectedly. On  investigation he isolated a new type of light ray.

And how many accidents among similarly talented and motivated people were dead ends? We are victims of survivorship bias in our popularizing of breakthrough stories, giving attention only to successful outcomes from accidents, while ignoring the vast majority of accidents and mistakes that led absolutely nowhere.

To be more helpful, work is the essential element in all finished creative projects and inventions. No matter how brilliant the idea, or miraculous its discovery, work will be required to develop it to the point of consumption by the rest of the world. And it’s effort, even if in pursuit of pleasure, that  provides the opportunity for serendipity to happen. Every writer, artist and inventor is chasing something, even if it turns out to be the wrong thing, on their way to their moments of insight. There is no way to pursue only the insights themselves, anymore than you could harvest a garden without planting seeds. The unknown can not be predictable, and if creativity is an act of discovery then uncertainty must come with the territory.

Curiosity is a far simpler concept than serendipity and far more useful. People who are curious are more likely to expend effort to answer a question on their mind. To be successful in creative pursuits requires an active curiosity and a desire to do experiments and make mistakes, having the sensibility that a mistake is a kind of insight, however small, waiting to be revealed.

The Myths of Innovation (the actual myths) will always be popular, which means for any inspiring story of a breakthrough, we must ask:

  1. How much work did the creator do before the accident/breakthrough happened?
  2. How much work did they do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
  3. What did they sacrifice (time/money/reputation) to convince others of the value of the discovery?

It’s answering these 3 questions about any creativity story in the news, however accidental or deliberate, that reveals habits to emulate if we want to follow in their footsteps.

18 Responses to “Creativity Is Not An Accident”

  1. Buck Field

    I recommend “Creating Scientific Concepts” by Nancy Nersessian. It has the most detailed historical analysis in one place on this topic I know, while “Systematicity” by Hoyningen-Huene has the most robust theoretical framework I’ve personally encountered.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks. I’m not familiar with this one, but for a time I did read regularly about the philosophy of science. It’s encouraging how some of the central themes in theories of science discovery match those in technological invention as well as artistic creation.

  2. Marc

    A collection of essays and letters about the creative process written by 38 of the most creative minds of arts and science, from Mozart to Einstein, suggests that there is no obvious magic recipe or replicable pattern. (The Creative Process, ed. Brewster Ghiselin, first published 1952, University of California Press). A second look reveals firstly that all the brilliant minds were very very good at their craft and therefore had the skills to implement and test ideas. Progress by trial and error clearly requires skill. Secondly, they were all broadly interested far beyond their trade. It would seem that new ideas emerged from observations outside their field of expertise. On this basis, creativity would be the product of a nearly pathological urge to solve problems, supported by skill (relentlessly sharpened) and curiosity (lifelong learning).

    1. Scott Berkun

      “there is no obvious magic recipe or replicable pattern”

      Indeed, but these days creativity is so obsessed about, and the self-help market so strong, that it’s hard to prevent the existence of popular books that promise formulas and recipes.

      It becomes moot at a point to see creativity as a thing divorced from the work it produces. What does it matter how creative a person is or isn’t if they don’t produce anything or influence anyone who does?

      And it’s in this notion that I find the only really sensible advice. You have to spend calories. You have to make something, anything, and only then, maybe, can books or suggestions about creativity have any meaning at all. It’s best not to think of creativity as some abstract function, but simple a quality that can expose itself if you are in fact making something.

      It’s very easy to get lost it pretense

    2. Buck Field

      First, we should note that personal anecdotes appear to be one of the least reliable forms of evidence known, an assessment consistent with what we know about the brain’s natural process of confabulation.

      Nersessian and others comparison of scientists’ recollection of important theoretical development years after major success and global acclaim was, AFAIK, very different from the evidence provided by their own documentation made at the time in every single instance where such evidence was available.

      They remember flashes of insight, while journals describe years of building analogous models with imagery refined sometimes over decades, drawing on cultural or societal concepts and resources that are nearly impossible for us to accurately recall. To experience this yourself, look over any sentence in this comment and try to remember what it was like to see the letters and not know what they meant, or imagine how the world would look if you didn’t know artificial lighting existed. Basically, our brains can’t do it.

      1. Scott Berkun

        Thanks for this and your other thoughtful comment.

        The rub is that storytelling hinges on character – our brains love anecdotes and digest them faster than nearly any other kind of communication.

        The responsibility then of writers and experts is to couch anecdotes inside context, always making sure to frame them so that their potency isn’t misleading.

          1. Scott Berkun

            I own a copy but have not read it yet. Thanks for recommending it here.

            btw: I added a link to the book to your comment.

  3. Tyler

    Solid post Scott. Struggling with my book, you keep me in there most days.

  4. Jason Crawford

    Excellent! Completely agree.

    See also “Luck and the Entrepreneur,
    Part 1: The four kinds of luck” by Marc Andreessen (2007):

    He quotes extensively from *Chase, Chance, and Creativity* by James Austin on four kinds of luck and what we can do to influence them—including being curious and energetic, among others.

  5. Lidia van Wyk

    I wholeheartedly agree with this article, especially about the element of curiosity which is a blatant trait in creative individuals. I also think that being open minded to many possibilities is essential in discovering the essence of a thing.

  6. Warren Croce

    “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”
    -Chuck Close

  7. MA Porter

    The triggering event may be some sort of accident, but the observation and recognition that something unexpected occurred was no accident. The upfront effort required to be prepard for an “accident” is rarely part of the story. I like Steven Johnson’s description of the role of preparation leading to Darwin’s insight into evolution (Where good ideas come from).

  8. John Boyer

    Confabulation is not a bad thing. One characteristic that makes all humans unique is our imagination. The human mind is more complex than the universe that it perceives. All of the people mentioned in these comments had very active and disciplined imaginations. Not everything imagined is good for us or even true but a good imagination opens tremendous opportunities.

  9. John Ullman

    Perhaps this whole discussion was summed up by Louis Pasteur a century and a half ago:

    “In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.”
    Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

  10. Pradip

    It reminds me of one quote by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, “Excellence is a continuous process and not an accident”. Thanks for sharing.


Leave a Reply

* Required