Walter Isaacson on creativity and imagination

As you may already know, Walter Isaacson has written about Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, and Albert Einstein. “All were very smart. But that’s not what made them special. Smart people are a dime a dozen and often don’t amount to much. What counts is being creative and imaginative. That’s what makes some a true innovator.” And that’s why he thinks Jeff Bezos is in their league.

In his Introduction to Invent and Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos, Isaacson has this to say about the ingredients of creativity and imagination:

“The first is to be curious, passionately curious. Take Leonardo [who] asks and tries to answer hundreds of charmingly random questions: Why is the sky blue? What does the tongue of a woodpecker look like? Do a bird’s wings move faster when flapping up or flapping down? How is the pattern of swirling water similar to that of curling hair? Is the muscle of the bottom lip connected to that of the top lip? He did not need to know the answers in order to paint masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa (“although it helped”) but because “he was Leonardo, always obsessively curious.”

“A second key trait is to love and connect the arts and sciences.”  According to Steve Jobs, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough…We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us ghe results that makes our heart sing.” When Einstein was frustrated by his inability to formulate the theory of general relativity, “he would pull out his violin and play Mozart, saying that music helped connect him to the harmony of the spheres.”

“Another characteristic of truly innovative and creative people is that they have a reality-distortion field, a phrase that was used about Steve Jobs and comes from a Star Trek episode in which aliens create an entirely new world through sheer mental force. When his colleagues protested that one of Jobs’s ideas or proposals would be impossible to implement, he used a trick he learned from a guru in India: he would stare at them without blinking and say, ‘Don’t be afraid. You can do it.’ It usually worked. He drove people mad, he drove them to distraction, but he also drove them to do things they didn’t believe they could do.”

“Related to that is the ability to ‘think differently,’ as Jobs put it in a memorable set of Apple ads.” Eventually, Einstein came up with an out-of-the-box insight: “Perhaps the speed of light is always constant, he theorized, because time itself is relative depending on one’s state of motion. It took the rest of the physics community a few years to realize that this ‘theory of relativity’ was right.”

“One final trait shared by all my subjects is that they retained a childlike sense of wonder. At a certain point in life, most of us quit puzzling over everyday phenomena.” Children are discouraged from asking questions about blue skies, woodpeckers’ tongues, and swirling waters. Picasso once lamented that he spent his adult life struggling to see the world again as he once did as a child. In a letter to a friend, Einstein observed, “You and I never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.”

As indicated, Isaacson ranks Bezos among the most creative and imaginative thought leaders. “He embodies all these traits. He has never outgrown his wonder years. He retains an insatiable, childlike, and joyful curiosity about almost everything.”

All this is discussed in much greater depth in the Introduction (Pages 1-4) but the traits are most evident throughout Bezos’ life and work thus far.

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Walter Isaacson, University Professor of History at Tulane, has been CEO of the Aspen Institute, chairman of CNN, and editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Leonardo da Vinci; Steve Jobs; Einstein: His Life and Universe; Benjamin Franklin: An American Life; and Kissinger: A Biography. He is also the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made and, more recently, the author of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Invent and Wander was published by Harvard Business Review Press (November 2020).


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