Filling Your Creative Reservoir

The Secret to Innovation

Life is full of little puzzles. Problems that we have to work through, one piece at a time.

It’s tempting to think that we can solve these puzzles, by going inside ourselves. Listening to our hearts or our heads, and emerging with the solution. We believe that if we can just harness the powers of reflection and rationality, we’ll be able to summon the creativity and wisdom needed to solve our own problems.

But by studying creativity, and those who employ it at the highest degree, we can quickly see that this isn’t the case.

Filling and Emptying

In a tiny warehouse on a fishing wharf in Copenhagen, a handful of chefs are conjuring up a new batch of dishes. Things like celeriac shawarma, reindeer brain jelly, beetle made from berry hides, and duck feet candies.

Every six days, the team at Noma creates another world class dish for their menu. Led by Rene Redzepi, this team works at an incredible pace to produce an entirely new menu each season. Starting with just the hint of an idea, they’ll test, and tweak, and taste each dish until it’s a masterpiece in its own right. This process has landed them at the top of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list an astounding five times.

“Creativity to me, starts with knowledge,” says owner and chef, Rene Redzepi, “traveling, reading books, watching movies, and being very present.” At Noma, the process of accumulating knowledge, is held in the highest regard. Without it, the restaurant would quickly fall into repetition, which is the first sign of death in the culinary world.

So Rene treats this first part of the creative process—the act of filling himself up with knowledge and ideas—very seriously. So much so that on multiple occasions, he’s closed the restaurant for months on end to fill the creative reservoirs of his team.

The first time he did this, they relocated to London and made scones and Lancashire hotpots. And again, but this time to Kyoto, where they cooked overnight lotus roots. Then Sydney, Tulum, and Brooklyn. Each time throwing out their tried and true dishes and creating an entirely new menu. One that honored the local ingredients, methods, and culinary traditions of the new region.

Rene describes this process as a constant filling and emptying. Spending months taking up inspiration like a sponge, and then distilling, creating, and emptying it onto the plate.

Get a Life

The first step in solving any difficult problem is that you must fill your creative reservoir.

Musicians, entrepreneurs, and chefs are all acutely aware of this prerequisite. But none more so than writers. If they get stuck with a problem for too long, the consequences can be disastrous. Writer’s block sets in, books deals fall through, and careers languish in purgatory for years.

That might have been the fate for best-selling author Ryan Holiday, had he not been given a poignant piece of advice at the start of his career. Expressing his deep desire to be a writer, but having no idea where to start, he asked a mentor for guidance.

“They said—Okay, writers live interesting lives,” recalls Holiday, “The point being, you can go to the Iowa writer's workshop and get really good at putting the words in the right order, or you can go do stuff, and experience stuff, and then write about that.”

So, while he was expecting to get a list of books to read or courses to take, Ryan Holiday was instead told to go “get a life”.

Connecting the dots

When I think of creativity—or even genius in the modern sense—I naturally gravitate to the likes of Steve Jobs and the culture he created at Apple. But as a practitioner, Jobs knew the true nature of creativity.

“When you ask creative people how they did something,” Jobs would say, “they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.” That’s because employing creativity to solve unique problems starts with one thing: connecting the dots.

To do so requires a wealth of knowledge from disparate fields. It requires gathering experiences, and tools, and skills, in order to build a map of the territory. After all, you can’t connect the dots if you can’t see them. As Jobs would lament, “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect”.

Creation, at its essence, is this connection.

Namely, what we’re connecting is other people’s experiences with our own. In this way, both lived experience and acquired knowledge are essential to overcoming our most pressing challenges with creativity.

Inspiration from 19th Century Art

At Noma, a new dish doesn’t effortlessly spring out of the void, ex nihilo.

"Cooking is repetition,” a fellow chef would say of the process of creating a new dish with Rene Redzepi. “Our minds are going very quickly through a million recipes we know, looking for connections. It's all about experience. And experience is built on paying attention.”

Solving the problem that Noma faces every six days—of creating another entirely unique world class dish—is an exercise in connection.

But connecting the dots and recounting our experiences, need not be limited to the field in which we’re working. We don’t need to study chefs to become a great chef, or entrepreneurs to become a great entrepreneur. Instead, mindful observation of music, or business, or mathematics, or design are equally useful ways to fill our creative reservoir.

At Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, their world renown sourdough was not informed by apprenticeship, recipe reading, and culinary school alone. It was also inspired by a 19th century French naturalist painting.

“The loaf would be baked dark,” the head baker wrote, after studying the painting Les Canotiers de la Meurthe, “and the substantial, blistered crust would hold some give while containing a voluptuous, wildly open crumb.” The result of this emulation—I can attest from person experience—is truly the best sourdough in the world.

And it would not be possible without a wealth of information, experience, conversation, travel, and relentless observation. These are the raw ingredients for creativity, and the prerequisites to solving unique problems.

Turning an Empty Kaleidoscope

“There is no such thing as a new idea,” Mark Twain would say. “We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.”

But too often, we get caught up in creating the biggest, most robust kaleidoscope without any consideration to the shards of sparkling glass that fill it. Then we spin and spin, to no avail. Despite our best efforts, we cannot create while we are empty.

We cannot solve our most pressing problems today, from the same perspective we failed to solve them from yesterday.

Therefore, our first job should be to live a compelling life. To paraphrase Steve Jobs: we can harness creativity by having more unique experiences, and think about them more deeply than others.

I’ve heard many elite chefs say that at a certain level, it is no longer about skill. It’s about leaning in to your imperfections. It’s about your willingness to break away from the pack and do something wholly unexpected.

By connecting the dots in your own special way.


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