Creativity is just connecting things

My friend Gregg let me borrow the Bloomgberg Businessweek edition celebrating the life of Steve Jobs. One Jobs quote from a 1996 Wired magazine interview struck me with its simplicity:

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

I think we often associate creativity with trying to dream up a new idea or piece together a solution to a problem. The same way a fine artist has paints, canvas, brushes, and techniques, a creative person has raw resources, such as education, books, relationships, and experiences.

But if, as Jobs obviously believed, the connections are more important than originality or some Herculean effort to coax something out of nothing, then old ideas—old materials—will often work just as well as new ones.

Bean bootsTake, for example, my pair of Bean boots made by L.L. Bean. There’s nothing state-of-the-art about them. They’re made of full-grain leather and rubber with some cotton thread for stitching and metal eyelets for the laces.

Leon Leonwood Bean first began developing his prototype around 1911, and by 1912, he had found a list of non-residents who had hunted in Maine. He sent them an advertisement with his now-famous Moneyback Guarantee. People ordered boots. Everything seemed to be going well for Mr. Bean’s new business until his new customers began returning their boots.

90% of that first production came back, and Mr. Bean had to put his money where his mouth was and honor that Moneyback Guarantee.

What amazes me even more than his integrity is what happened after he sent all those refunds: he moved forward with the next product, and the next, and the next. A century later, people are still buying Bean boots, and the original design that obviously needed tweak now keeps thousands, millions, of feet warm and dry.

The design of the Bean boot is an old idea, but it has shown impressive staying power. You can certainly find more expensive boot—mine cost $80—with light, synthetic materials weighted down with any number of promises from the company about how the boots will perform in Nepal or Patagonia. But the “Maine Hunting Shoe,” as Bean first dubbed it, will probably exist long after other boots disappear. It went from a stupendous failure to a success story stretching over one hundred years.

It seems to me that we’ve gotten the egg before the chicken in the way we think about success. We believe that failure is a by-product of success, but the opposite is true: success is a by-product of failure.

Because Leon Bean failed, I now wear a better boot. If you want to succeed, you should invest your time, money, and creativity not in avoiding failure but in learning how to fail better.

What’s your creative project, your pair of boots, going to be in 2012?

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