Where do we find creativity?

My former colleague, Melanie Hatton, was the subject of a Twitter interview a couple of weeks ago. When asked what advice she would give lawyers starting out today, she responded that they should find an unrelated interest in addition to the law, to make themselves stand out. She has elaborated on that answer in a blog post, which draws on the commencement address that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in June 2005.

As Melanie summarises it:

Simply put, the more broad your experience and interests, the more opportunities there are in your life to connect the dots and bring a fresh and creative perspective to the table.

Law is no different, and some would argue more in need of creative energy: the best patent attorneys usually have a background in science and chemistry and a passion for photography might fuel a leading copyright lawyer’s quest to represent image right-holders.

I have made a similar point in the past here, and also in a long comment on a post by Jordan Furlong about legal education. But on reflection, I fear I may have overstated the case for breadth of interests.

Steven Johnson (whose book The Invention of Air was one of my fascinating reads of last year) has just published a study of scientific creativity, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. His publisher has created a neat animated summary of the book, embedded below.

In the summary, Johnson says “the great driver of scientific innovation and technological innovation has been the historic increase in connectivity and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new.”

This is where the difference lies. The route to insight, creativity, or innovation depends only partly on being personally committed to an open-minded quest for different perspectives. It also requires connection and collaboration with other people. And the balance between the two constantly shifts. For some people, or some problems, the right response is to look at alternative disciplines or ideas. For others, wider connections might be a better answer.

Over the Summer, I read The Strangest Man — a biography of Paul Dirac, who was probably Britain’s least well-known most influential physicist. Dirac was born in Bristol of a Cornish mother and Swiss father. Even allowing for the fact that his father was an overbearing bully, Dirac’s communications with his family were sketchy at best. He would send his mother a postcard every week, but it would usually only refer to the weather in Cambridge. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1933, his parents only found out when they read a report in the newspaper.

By contrast, Dirac clearly engaged deeply with his fellow physicists. He travelled widely and made connections in his own fashion — he tended to listen only as long as he was interested and speak only when he had clear (almost brusque) contributions to make. He was no conversationalist, but he is regarded as a real link between Einstein and Richard Feynman. So he made connections as well as he could, and he also drew on talents beyond theoretical physics. As a boy, he had been educated in a technical school: his perspective on atomic physics was therefore different from many of his contemporaries because he always sought elegantly calculated solutions.

Today’s Financial Times contained its annual survey of innovative lawyers. I don’t make a regular study of this publication, but I was struck this year by the fact that many of the instances of innovation embodied some form of connection or collaboration. It is just the beginning, but perhaps the trend is set for lawyers as it has been for scientists for many years. As Isaac Newton, Dirac’s predecessor as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, put it: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”