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Einstein at the Beach

The hidden connection between risk and creativity

I want to start out by telling you two things about Albert Einstein that you probably didn’t know:

1) He was an avid sailor

2) He didn’t know how to swim.

Interesting trivia perhaps, but there’s a much deeper connection. Einstein, obviously one of the great creative lions in science, was also a keen risk taker. Not only did Einstein love to sail and not know how to swim—he often took unnecessary chances while sailing.

For the years that he summered in Nassau Point (1937-1939), residents would repeatedly have to rescue the scientist after he sailed his dinghy “Tinef” (Yiddish for “worthless” or “junk”) into troubled waters. Rumor has it that he occasionally delighted in sailing unsuspecting scientists directly into storms—for the sheer fun of it.

The point here is that there is a deep and meaningful connection between risk taking and creativity and it’s one that’s often overlooked.

For starters, creativity is the act of making something from nothing. It requires making public those bets first placed by imagination. This is not a job for the timid. Time wasted, reputation tarnished, money not well spent—these are all by-products of creativity gone awry. And, for sure, creativity often goes awry.

This too is part of the process. Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often. In study after study after study, the most brilliantly creative people are also the ones with the most output. It isn’t that they have better creative ideas than the rest of us, it’s that they have more to choose from—by working at incredibly high volumes they are offsetting for a built in and extremely high error rate. So not only does creativity require courage in ones convictions (or imagination, as is probably more accurate), it requires a willingness to die for those convictions—over and over and over again.

But there’s an even tighter coupling at work here, and that’s my deeper point. From a neurological perspective, creativity is the product of long distance connections in the brain. When creative problem solve they don’t just search the familiar nearby databases, they stretch their brains hunting for dimmer connections, subtler connections, novel linkages. This kind of thinking requires a lot of practice and thus the rub—before you know how to think this way, how can you learn to think this way?

Well—take a few risks for starters.

When the brain encounters unfamiliar stimuli under uncertain conditions—especially when those are dangerous uncertain conditions—baser instincts take over. As a result, brain’s the rational extrinsic system is shunted aside in favor of the intuitive creative system. Simply put, in an effort to save our own butts, the brain’s pattern recognition system starts hunting through every possible database to hunt up a solution.

Risk, therefore, causes the mind to stretch its muscles. It creates mandatory conditions for innovation. It trains the brain to think in unusual ways. It trains the brain to be more creative.

So yes, it really might be time to learn how to skydive.

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