Seven Ingredients of Creativity

July 20, 2016

There are many books published on creativity and innovation each year. Most are written by consultants or journalists who survey large areas and try to distil some general characteristics. A complementary approach is offered when when a hugely creative individual gives his own personal views, based on results within a specific specialised area.

Using the latter approach, the mathematician Cedric Villani offers seven ingredients conducive to the birth of an idea (see short video above):

  1. Documentation, for building on what is known
  2. Motivation incl. early education
  3. Environment eg life in a big bustling city
  4. Communication eg massive collaboration in the future
  5. Constraints, to imaginatively find ways around obstacles
  6. Illumination coupled with meticulous systematic work
  7. Luck and tenacity

Villani (born 5 October 1973) is an outstanding French mathematician and was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010 (the highest accolade you can get for contributions to mathematics).


Cedric Villani (picture from WikiMedia)

From The New Yorker:

Villani has been called the Lady Gaga of French mathematicians. After winning the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, in 2010, for what his award citation called “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation,” he embraced a role that many other medalists have dreaded—that of mathematical ambassador, hopscotching from event to event and continent to continent, evangelizing for the discipline. “We are the most hidden of all fields,” he told me. “We are the ones who typically interact the least with the outer world. We are also the field which is most emblematic of revulsion in school.”

Pitching By Conversation

July 13, 2016


Pitching is a common way of trying to garner interest and hopefully, eventually, funding and support. However, in casual situations, it can come over as quite mechnical and forced. I’ve done this myself and also had it done to me! Could there be, on occasion, a better way?

There’s a nice story by Kevin Starr, who is a Foundation Director, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review that gives a very honest example which lead him to consider this problem further. The points made are quite general.

Some extracts from the article:

It’s because a pitch is a really weird way to communicate. Its basic premise is that time is scarce and power is unequal. Even if concise and well-organized, the information comes in a one-way rush that forces the listener into an uncomfortable, passive role. The listener starts to fidget and look around, and the talker slides into the role of the supplicant who knows her time is slipping away. Anxiety and/or annoyance ensue, and it takes great social skills on the part of somebody for it to end well…

These days, when I work with social entrepreneurs, I suggest that they dump the whole “elevator pitch” thing in favor of a “hallway conversation” approach that more closely approximates how human beings communicate. I’m not saying you should wing it: You can and should prepare. There are some common patterns in funder-doer interactions that, if anticipated, will lead to productive, comfortable, and authentic conversations…

Here’s the thing: If you want funders to go down the road with you, you need to make them feel: 1) smart, and 2) comfortable. Make that your mantra. Make it easy for them to grasp what you’re up to, and master your own anxiety so you don’t trigger it in them. We are talking about an encounter between good people who want the same things. A pitch turns it into an ordeal; a conversation makes it real. Choose the conversation.

He also gives some concrete suggestions about how to carry this out, it’s a helpful and illuminating read.

Mental Models and the Cobra Effect

July 9, 2016

I came across an interesting listing of some of the different tools and approaches we all use to sort out issues in life and work: Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful.

The list is categorised (from use by the author) via Frequently Used (62 models), Occasionally Used (40 models) and Rarely (though still repeatedly) Used (84 models).

Browsing through the list I noticed one I’d not come across before, The Cobra Effect, which is an example of an Unintended Consequence.

From Wikiwand you get these interesting stories:

The term cobra effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse.

A similar incident occurred in Hanoi, Vietnam, under French colonial rule. The colonial regime created a bounty program that paid a reward for each rat killed. To obtain the bounty, people would provide the severed rat tail. Colonial officials, however, began noticing rats in Hanoi with no tails. The Vietnamese rat catchers would capture rats, lop off their tails, and then release them back into the sewers so that they could procreate and produce more rats, thereby increasing the rat catchers’ revenue. Historian Michael Vann argues that the cobra example from British India cannot be proven, but that the rats in Vietnam case can be proven, so the term could be changed to the “rat effect”.

Different Types of Happiness

July 9, 2016

“If you want happiness for an hour take a nap.

If you want happiness for a day – go fishing.

If you want happiness for a year – inherit a fortune.

If you want happiness for a lifetime – help someone else.”

– Chinese proverb

Exploring London Through Photowalks

June 19, 2016

Portobello April 2016

A Shop in Portobello Road Market

Now that I have more free time, I’ve been wondering what new interesting activities I could start. One was getting to know the many parts of London quite well. I live near London and have visited hundreds of times of course, sometimes for meetings and other times for social reasons.

Regarding meetings, one interesting aspect has been going to various Knowledge Cafes that are organised by my friend David Gurteen (see here for context). They are held in a wide variety of venues including universities, business schools, government bodies and commercial companies (BT, Arup etc).

Apart from having interesting and illuminating conversations with people from different disciplines, it’s also been fascinating to see inside the buildings themselves and get a feel for the different atmospheres they generate.

Japanese Garden April 2016

The Kyoto Garden in Holland Park

As part of this I realised how little I really knew of London, except for the obvious places. So with various friends I’ve started doing photowalks in different areas, partly as a form of exploration and partly to improve my photography skills. The photos above and below were taken whilst exploring the attractive area around Holland Park in London.

Commonwealth April 2016

The Commonwealth Institute along Kensington High Street

There are some general, introductory tips on doing photowalks here.

In addition, this week I came across a very well made video that gives 23 creative tips for making photowalks that bit more interesting and imaginative, it’s well wroth a look:

If you have the time and interest, why not do something similar?

Palatable and Contructive Feedback

June 2, 2016

When someone tells you about a new business idea or similar, it’s tempting to focus on any weak points or areas where the approach is incomplete. The likely reaction will then be defensive or unappreciative.

I came across a simple routine to avoid this (often unproductive) battle:

Thankfully, this understanding of the brain reveals a little routine that we can all use to ensure that helpful feedback lands as it’s intended. It goes like this:

1. Tell the other person: “What I like about this is . . .” Give meaningful, specific examples of what you like, and explain why you like them. Aim for as many concrete positive points as you can. Don’t rush.
2. Then say: “What would make me like it even more is . . .”

The goal in the first of these two steps is to be at least as tangible and forthcoming in your praise as you are in your criticism—not just saying “it’s great,” but what specifically is “great” about it. (Matt might’ve said, “I really liked the way you pulled in survey data to support your argument, for example in the section on page two. It tells a great story and sticks in the reader’s mind.”) These sorts of details matter; they make it far more likely that the person properly absorbs the fact that you value aspects of whatever they’ve said or done.

Now all I have to do is to remember to actually use it and see how effective it is!

The Allure of Physical Books

May 31, 2016

TsundokuSee also here

I made an attempt to move over to ebooks a few years ago, mainly in the hope of realising some more space (I literally have hundreds of physical books, many from when I was an academic).

However, over time, I’ve realised that I really prefer physical ones (except for travel). I was curious why this was so and Michael Hyatt has given 8 reasons:

1. Ebooks Are out of Sight and out of Mind

2. Ebooks Engage Fewer Senses

3. Ebooks Make It Easier to Get Distracted

4. Ebooks Result in Less Retention and Comprehension

5. Ebooks Feel Too Much like Online Reading

6. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Interact With

7. Ebooks Are More Difficult to Navigate

8. Ebooks Provide Less Satisfaction in Finishing

My current approach is to read a new physical book through a local library (which also helps keep it going, so that’s a win-win) to see how good it is. If they don’t have it in stock it’s easy and cheap to request it (even for quite technical books eg through inter-library loans). In fact through the British Library you have access to most books that have been published (at least in the UK).

I’ve found in practice that having my own copy is now not that important and I now only buy a few ‘exceptional’ ones (ie ones that have a large and lasting impact on me).

However, I wonder if this is also generational. I was brought up on physical books but for someone brought up on ebooks (and digital media in general) it might be quite different.



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