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Scott Berkun


Creativity Is Not an Accident

Curiosity is far simpler (and more useful) than serendipity

Published: Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 15:32

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

In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Cultivate The Art of Serendipity,” author Pagan Kennedy wrote, “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 than merely chases serendipity. Capitalizing on so-called “accidents” is an excellent notion that Kennedy mentions, however briefly, and I wish it were the focus of the entire article.

Serious play

A common pattern of the myth of epiphany is creativity by accident. The very idea of the Muse, which represents a force that chooses to grant ideas to us from above, externalizes the nature of creativity. Accidents have similar providence and appeal. Because 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 that 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 from the Times piece 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:
• 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

Remember, Hollinger stated, “I was just playing.” I agree that play is a fantastic use of time and very helpful for anyone wanting to develop skills for invention and creativity. It’s important, however, to note that Hollinger’s idea of play is likely very different from ours. It’s serious play.

As Orlean wrote of him in that 2008 New Yorker piece: “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.” Serious play, indeed.

Dead ends, fresh starts, and survivorship bias

Despite this, as mentioned, Kennedy’s Times article emphasized accidents and randomness, especially in the development of the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, and X-ray imaging. Let’s consider the context of accidents in the development of these products:
Microwave oven. In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, discovered that a candy bar had melted in his pocket when he happened to wander near some radar equipment. He chose to do a series of experiments to isolate why this happened and discovered microwaves. It would take approximately 20 years before the technology developed sufficiently to reach consumers.
Safety glass. In 1903, scientist Edouard Benedictus, while in his lab, dropped a flask by accident. To his surprise, it didn’t break. He discovered that the flask held residual cellulose nitrate, which created a protective coating. It would be more than a decade before it was used commercially in gas masks.
Artificial sweeteners. In 1879, German scientist Constantine Fahlberg discovered saccharin, the first artificial sweetener. He failed to wash his hands after working in his lab one day, and at dinner he discovered an exceptionally sweet taste on his fingers. 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, but 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. On Nov. 8, 1895, during an experiment, he noticed crystals glowing unexpectedly. On further investigation he isolated a new type of light ray.

But 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. It is 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 the way to a moment of insight. There is no way to pursue only the insights themselves, any more than you could harvest a garden without planting seeds. The unknown cannot 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 that person do after the accident/breakthrough to understand it?
3. What did he or she sacrifice (in terms of time, money, reputation, etc.) to convince others of the value of the discovery?

It’s answering these three 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.

First published Jan. 5, 2016, on Scott Berkun’s blog.


About The Author

Scott Berkun’s picture

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author of five books and a speaker known for his work on creativity, management, and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, and other media. His latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013) was named an Amazon.com best book of the year.



infinite amount of monkeys again

Everytime I read about creatitvity, Newton and his apple usually show up

and I am reminded of the infinite amount of monkeys sitting at type writers 

One of them is bound to type a Shakepearean play 

but will never realise it.

How many humans watched an apple fall from a tree until Newton realised 

what the story was?