Asking for More Spaghetti

When seeking creative insights, mindset trumps process.


Paysans surpris par un orage  ( Peasants surprised by a storm ) (1770s) by Francesco Casanova. This may be the only extant painting of a person getting struck by lightning. He likely was not being punished for requesting more spaghetti.

Paysans surpris par un orage (Peasants surprised by a storm) (1770s) by Francesco Casanova. This may be the only extant painting of a person getting struck by lightning. He likely was not being punished for requesting more spaghetti.

There is no surefire set of guidelines that can explain or ensure creativity, the 645 million Google results for “how to be creative” notwithstanding.

Instead of drafting a list of doctrinaire rules, we’re better off pondering examples of inspired insight and innovation whenever they present themselves, to see what can be learned from them.

Here’s one. In his review of Megan McArdle’s new book The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Robert VerBruggen recounts a part of the book detailing the surprising results of a quirky experiment:

“McArdle relates a project in which various groups were asked to build the tallest structure possible out of spaghetti and tape. Unsurprisingly, the engineers beat out the business-school students (who spent too much time arguing about who got to be CEO). But the winners were the kindergarteners — who, instead of painstakingly planning a structure based on the established laws of physics, simply started building and then discarded ideas that didn’t work. They also thought outside the box, or maybe cheated a bit, asking for more spaghetti — a possibility not mentioned when the materials were provided.”

That’s right: The kindergarteners beat the engineers, which is outstanding.

But did they cheat? McArdle states that the possibility of garnering extra spaghetti wasn’t mentioned — but nor, presumably, was it prohibited. The only way the kindergarteners’ advantage could be perceived as unfair is if the engineers or B-schoolers also requested more but were met with a vehement “NO! You are grown-ups! No more pasta for you!”

Rather, it seems that the kindergartners, bless their innocent hearts, simply neglected to be constrained by the possibilities laid out before them in black and white. They also never even entertained at least one implicit limitation mistakenly assumed to exist by their more prejudiced adult counterparts. The kids weren’t breaking any rules; their naivety simply precluded them from anticipating and being caged by certain outside expectations, thereby allowing their minds to fly more freely.

Alas, after years of schooling, acculturation, and relentless subjugation to various and arbitrary authorities, it sure is difficult for a 21st century adult to think like a kindergartener. Most times it’s also ill advised. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to try to recapture a similar state of mind sometimes.

When attempting to accomplish something new (e.g., solving a stubborn problem, designing a product, making a piece of art, besting the Devil in an impromptus fiddle battle), we’d all surely welcome as much creativity and inspiration as our neurons can muster. In the drawing-board phase, perhaps a good way to reverse-engineer the benefits of untrammeled kindergartener-thinking is to make a list of what is expected, no matter how basic or obvious — then in an opposite column list avenues and advantages that would be welcomed yet might be considered unfair. If any of the ideas in the latter column appears to be “cheating,” ask yourself: Says who? You might find that the rules your inhibitions are invoking are imaginary.

After all, who says you can’t ask for more spaghetti? Was that stated right there on the RFP? To crack a problem, anything that isn’t outright forbidden or unethical can be considered.

Of course, it’s extraordinarily difficult to escape our invisible boundaries, considering we often are not even aware of them. The advice to try only raises more questions, like: OK, how? Unfortunately, remember, there is no guidebook to having creative insights. That said, there are other considerations that might make it more likely for us to experience them — to help get in the right mindset to encourage inspiration. Sort of like how lightning rods attract, but don’t guarantee, lightning: the conditions must be right.

For instance, when some serious thinking or productivity is required, many people choose to have some coffee. However, while caffeine does increase focus, it’s alcohol that has been shown to help produce more creative (and more effective) ideas. In this study (“Uncorking the muse: Alcohol intoxication facilitates creative problem solving”), researchers found that subjects who had had a couple drinks “were more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight.” So, say you’re a group of designers about to tackle a new project, or a creative team cringing at the day’s worth of unimpressive whiteboard jottings, or a poet appraising a blank journal page: enjoying a couple pints might be just the thing to get the connections rolling.

In that same Medium essay linked above, Mikael Cho offers a nice definition of creativity: “[The] ability to think of something original from connections made between pre-existing ideas in your brain.” If that’s true, then since it’s within our power to do so, it’s important to purposefully expose our minds to more stimuli in order to increase our stores of pre-existing ideas. By reading widely and diversifying our sources of information, who knows what may bubble up. In the words of Thomas Mann, “What a man knows always comes in handy.”

Speaking of famous scribblers, surely they would have some worthwhile advice here. Writing for The Millions about the weird rules people often try to impose on writers, novelist and journalist Ethan Hauser relates the following anecdote about Seamus Heaney:

“There was a story, perhaps apocryphal, that I remember hearing in high school. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney had come to give a reading and lecture a few years before I was there. Afterward, he took questions, and one student asked where he found his inspiration. The English teachers leaned forward, snapped out of their daydreaming and now thoughtfully thumbing their chins. ‘It could just be the view out the window, maybe a memory resurfacing,’ Mr. Heaney said. ‘Or it could be the hum of the word processor.’”

In other words, how would he know? It’s impossible to tell from where inspiration will strike. If there’s a window, take a look through it. If a memory resurfaces, try to uncover the obscure unconscious connection that led it to the fore. Go to a museum. Go to a pub. Pick up that odd little book. The more you vary your input, the greater chance you have of making more — and more meaningful — connections, which will hopefully lead to better creative output.

It is no easy task to wrest insight from the ether at will, and it is even harder to reveal the boundaries we’re unknowingly operating within, boundaries that might be self-imposed and are often completely imaginary. We also all suffer from unhelpful biases. Recognizing and correcting those biases in the hopes of being more intellectually and emotionally honest with ourselves requires a careful cultivation. (If you’d like to get better at this, study this interminable list of cognitive biases and try to catch your brain relying on them.)

So, does it suffice to say that creativity is about making connections, which result from exposure to information and can be increased by moderate alcohol intake and mimicking kindergarteners? Sounds about right. Then again, it is safe to assume that the kindergarteners in that study had less information stored in their heads than the engineers did, meaning less available connections to make (we can also infer that they were stone-cold sober), yet they displayed what turned out to be decisive innovative thinking. It just goes to show the futility of explaining creativity. Apparently this exercise was a round-about way of saying, “Who knows?”

Might as well close with some more advice from Thomas Mann then: “First, we must wash our eyes with darkness to see what we want to see.” What is it that you want to see? Or better yet: What do you see that isn’t there?



Posted on March 12, 2014.