How To Achieve A Creative Breakthrough

The Apple I computer took the world by surprise. It was the first computer that came with a keyboard and video display. But the Apple II blew the world away because of one creative breakthrough.

The Apple II had color (something that was believed to be impossible to do). The breakthrough idea came to Steve Wozniak late one night. He recalled this moment by saying “I had been up for four nights all night long; Steve [Jobs] and I got mononucleosis – your head gets into this real creative state and it thinks of ideas that you normally just throw out.”

Heads down working on the problem for 4 days, Wozniak eventually came up with the idea to try using a cheap little part (>$1) to take data and produce color that looked like a TV.

Not only did the Apple II have color, but it also had half the amount of components used in the Apple I making it more affordable for people who wanted a personal computer.

This 4 day bender led to a creative breakthrough that changed the course of computer interfaces. Extraordinary results (like the Apple II) come from understanding how to place yourself in the right place to achieve these creative breakthroughs.

A Common Misconception About Creative Breakthroughs

Past research would suggest experts are a result of 10,000 hours. The 10,000 hours rule was made popular by Malcom Gladwell. There’s no such thing as an instant expert in a subject. Even chess prodigies have to put in practice to eventually become a grandmaster.

From Gladwell’s research for his book Outliers, he determined that most experts require 10,000 dedicated hours towards their craft.

The 10,000 hour rule has created a common misconception about what’s required to achieve a creative breakthrough. There are other studies that back the idea that creative breakthroughs come from experts. It’s believed to require expertise, dedication, perseverance, and hard work. All of this is only partly true.

For every example of experts achieving breakthroughs in their industries you could find others that seem to stumble upon an idea that drives huge impacts (like Coco Chanel, who revolutionized women’s fashion). This is because creative breakthroughs come from cultivating the right environment, not building expertise.

The 3 Components For A Creative Breakthrough

The story of how Steve Wozniak got computers to display color while also cutting the overall cost demonstrates all 3 components that are required for you to have a creative breakthrough in your work. 

However, I’m a big proponent of sleep. A creative breakthrough can be achieved without working tirelessly four days straight if you understand these three components:

1) A+ vs B+ problems

You’re naturally more inclined to solve problems that you understand how to solve. It’s rare that these are the most impactful problems to tackle. You solve B+ problems more often because they are easier.

B+ problems don’t require working towards a breakthrough to get the answers.

It’s easy to avoid solving A+ problems because there’s often not an easy way to solve them. It takes a lot of time and effort so naturally you procrastinate them or jump to the first right answer.

Peter Thiel had this idea while running PayPal. So he limited everyone at the company to doing just one thing. It was so unnatural that people rebelled. Thiel would not talk about anything else other than the A+ problems people were seeking for solutions to.

By focusing on the A+ problems and using focus as your superpower to avoid easy B+ problems you achieve more breakthroughs in your work (without being an expert).

2) Understand excellence takes time

Always seek excellence in your work. Make your work better than average. Stop and think “Can I make this better? What would make this superior?” Taking time to slow down and think about these questions opens a window to new ideas.

It may not change anything in your work, but it gives you a better understanding of what you're doing. It forces you to take a second and think about the possibilities of creating something better.

You want to avoid taking the first right answer. Every time I have shipped a product that came as the first solution to the problem it’s almost always a guarantee that I missed something. The product fails to solve the core problem or go against the current patterns user’s have adopted within the product.

When you take time to stop and think about excellence it begins to seep deep into your subconscious mind. The desire to make your work better runs in the background of your mind.

At random times, you’ll receive ideas you never thought of that will make your work standout from among the crowd.

Similar to choosing the problems you work on, it’s easy to whip something up, check all the boxes, and call it done. What’s rare is giving the work the time and attention needed to seek out excellence. 

Use time to create the space needed for a creative breakthrough when you can. Just make sure you take into account Parkinson’s Law when doing it.

3) Keep the idea top of mind

Deep work is important to creative breakthroughs. You can only hold one idea in your mind at a time (trust me I’ve tried to do two things at a time).

Paul Graham said “I think most people have one top idea in their mind at a given time. That’s the idea their thoughts will drift towards when they’re allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefits of that type of thinking, while others are starved. Which means it’s a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.”

Making a conscious decision about what you work deeply on is important. The creative breakthrough will suddenly appear when you’re away from the work.

When I write, I carve out a chunk of time to do just that. If I get stuck I don’t reach for my phone but instead hold that thought top of mind as I do laundry, go for a walk, or sit outside taking in the mountains around me.

The answer then comes to me after holding it top of mind for a while.

Your subconscious mind has infinite creative potential, but it will only go towards the idea that is top in the queue. If you want the benefits of that creative force you must pick the idea you hold in your mind.

The right environment for a creative breakthrough comes from these three factors. Steve Wozniak had the problem of making a computer display color. Something that no one thought was possible (making it an A+ problem). He worked on this for 4 days straight (a test to his standard of quality). During that time he kept the problem top of mind and, as a result, achieved a creative breakthrough.


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