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Is Too Much Familiarity Bad For Creativity?

Originally posted on

Several years ago University of California at Davis professor Dean Simonton conducted a study that examined more than three hundred creative geniuses born between 1450 and 1850. The list included thinkers Liebniz and Descartes, scientists Newton and Copernicus and artists Vinci and Rembrandt. He compared the relationship between their education and eminence, a metric he determined by an array of criteria. He plotted the graph and found an inverted U sparking the following conclusion: “The most eminent creators were those who had received a moderate amount of education, equal to about the middle of college.”

Simonton’s research highlights a commonly held notion: too much familiarity can be detrimental to creativity. The problem, Simonton hypothesizes, is that creativity benefits from an outsider’s mindset. “Too much experience…” on the other hand, “may restrict creativity because you know so well how things should be done that you are unable to escape to come up with new ideas.” It seems reasonable, then, to suggest that, “if you want a creative solution to a problem, you’d better find someone who knows a little about the situation but not too much.”

Consider the clever website The premise is simple: ‘Seekers’ go to post problems for ‘Solvers.’ The problems range from “Recovery of Bacillus Spore from Swabs,” to “Blueprints for a Medical Transportation Device for Combat Rescue.” They are usually posted by large corporations, so the rewards can be lucrative – sometimes millions of dollars.

There are two things remarkable about InnoCentive, each brought to light by astudy conducted by researchers at Harvard Business School. The first is that it works; about 33 percent of the problems are solved on time. The second is that solvers tend to solve problems that are at the fringe of their expertise. If a biochemistry problem only attracted biochemists it tended to remain unsolved. But if the same problem was tackled by, say, a molecular biologist or an organic chemist the chances were greater that the problem would be solved. Outside thinking was vital.

Think about the failures of expertise, as the author of Talent is Overrated Geoff Colvin does: “Why didn’t Western Union invent the telephone? Why didn’t U.S. Steel invent the minimill. Why didn’t IBM invent the personal computer? Over and over, the organizations that knew all there was to know about a technology or an industry failed to make the creative breakthrough that would transform the business.”

Is too much expertise killing creativity?

Well, not exactly. Colvin goes on to remind readers that the greatest innovators of any field share a few characteristics in common: years of intensive preparation and technical competence. Great innovations, he says, are roses that bloom after long and careful cultivation.

He considers James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA. Colvin cites the research of Robert Weisberg, who showed that several other distinguished scientists were trying to solve the same problem at the same time. Colvin argues that, “if we presume that too much familiarity with a problem is a disadvantage, then we would expect to find that Watson and Crick came at this one unburdened by the excessive data that clouded the thinking of the other researchers. But in reality, the story was just the opposite.”

The larger point is that creative breakthroughs require about 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice within a given field:

The most eminent creators are consistently those who have immersed themselves utterly in their chosen field, have devoted their lives to it, amassed tremendous knowledge of it, and continually pushed themselves to the front of it. Zero evidence supports the conclusion that too much knowledge might be a hindrance in creative achievement.

And what about the success of InnoCentive? What’s important is not to be an outsider, but to have an outsider’s mindset. People at the fringe of their expertise solved problems on InnoCentive, but they were still solving problems within their general field of expertise. Indeed, innovation occurs at the boundary of disciplines, but you’ll never hear about a novelist winning a Nobel Prize in physics.

As for Simonton’s study, it’s important to remember that during the period that his subjects existed – 1450-1850 – many fundamental principles of the scientific method were still unknown. It was still possible – especially in the first half of that 400 year stretch – for someone to be an expert in multiple disciplines. Moreover, a high-level degree in, say, 1650, didn’t confer much.

Today’s landscape is much different – all the low hanging fruit is good. A breakthrough in any field requires exclusive preparation in that field; even experts don’t know everything about their field. So it’s important to maintain a skeptical point of view and think like an outsider. But when it comes to creative breakthroughs, the more familiarity the better.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. thanks for this! i was a bit nervous when you cited the simonton study and started talking about innocentive, and was relieved to see you address the common misconceptions surrounding the “outsider effect”.

    May 27, 2012
    • Hey Kara,now you didn’t think that you could have a topic about recording tcehnology and just have me sit on the sidelines, did you?Despite the naysayers, there a more than a few studios who prefer Source Connect over ISDN. One of the big reasons for this is cost (it’s much cheaper than compared to ISDN). Additionally, Source Connect’s interface with applications such as Pro Tools makes life a lot easier for studio engineers than ISDN does (though frankly, that comment is a hard sell to me as I’ve not really noticed it). However, what I truly like are the backup capabilities which I am told that Source Connect can provide. I was talking to George Whittam about this, and one of the primary reasons he was pushing the current version of Source Connect was that it had the capability to recover and re-download the audio as it’s automatically stored on the computer and can be resent.As for ISDN, yeah it’s going away. I’m sorry, but you can see it in how it’s being used and in how difficult it’s becoming for talent to have it installed. I like ISDN, and for what it was designed to do (short dedicated connections, video teleconference) it does a great job. VOIP hasn’t gotten there yet, and frankly it’s not going to be for a few years still. Latency, and major security issues are keeping a lot of corporations from fully embracing it, and they’re the ones who will set the tone for what the telecommunication companies provide. Until they fix the issues, and the tcehnology is fully embraced, ISDN will continue to limp along (which is a good thing).As for whether anyone actually needs ISDN for their voiceover business, the answer is that it depends. It’s one of those things that you need, when you know that you need it. If you’re losing $ because you don’t have it, you might want to consider investing in ISDN, but not necessarily (depending on how much you’re actually losing compare to the cost of installation and maintenance).Cheers!-Greg

      December 19, 2012
  2. Hey Kara..Another great blog entry.. Your entries are such great “Food for Thought” since we’re tlikang about food and all.. Once again some incredibly mindful insight.. I know.. for instance.. that I’ll feel allot better when the new studio is completed.. for me the security comes from having my ducks in a row.. if I have a project that’s unfinished.. I’m always nervous that I’ll get a big project and not be able to complete it because I’m in the middle of something.. Luckily.. I’ve got my current studio space setup and am scheduling the work in the main room upstairs at times when I’m not working on networking, projects, voiceover work etc. even if I’ve got nothing going on.. being ready to go if those emails come in.. I’d rather not be hammering a wall when I should be making that extra 500 bucks.. 🙂 Speaking of food.. I think I’ll go to the pantry and make a can of soup.. 🙂 Peace and Chicken grease! ;0

    August 1, 2013
  3. Kara -Love your new demo! And I have a new appreciation for Nancy Wolfson. There has been a trend in the last 15 years or so to have 2-3 secnod voice clips in a VO artist’s voice demo. I have not heard a significant change in that trend until recently, which includes your demo. How nice for the ear and brain to linger just long enough to enjoy a voice sample – before the next clip appears. A demo should have clips that are satisfying to listen to, but leave the listener wanting more – without being abruptly cut off! Segments that are too short do not give enough time to hear a full thought or emotion carried out by the voice – and a “fast-clip” demo, no matter how well-produced, often sounds disjointed. You wonder “What did I just hear”? … But Not your current demo. Clear distinctions, moods, ranges and approaches are evident here, even a dialogue portion. Nice stuff, Kara! And glad you’ve made the SmartPhone move, too! Love my Blackberry Tour – it is a VO job-saver, for sure. Gotta have it, Luv!Charlie

    September 1, 2013
  4. Wait, I cannot fathom it being so straightforward.

    October 18, 2013
  5. I am not going to argue with Sangha but I did ask in my first post and first sentence about the minenag of eminence as defined by the paper. This individual claims that “eminence” is the same as “genius”, what is a nonsense. I thought that maybe meant social, political or otherwise public relevance. But so far I have found no satisfactory answers. Wikipedia doesn’t help either:Eminence may refer to:Places* In the United States: o Eminence Township, Logan County, Illinois o Eminence, Indiana o Eminence, Kentucky o Eminence, MissouriAnatomyIn anatomy, eminence implies a protuberance, and may refer to a variety of structures:* Collateral eminence, alongside the hippocampus in the brain* Cruciform eminence, in the occipital bone of the skull* Frontal eminence, on the frontal bone of the skull* Hypothenar eminence, muscle on the little-finger side of the hand* Iliopubic eminence, in the pelvis* Intercondylar eminence, in the tibia bone of the leg* Medial eminence, in the rhomboid fossa of the fourth ventricle of the brain* Median eminence, below the hypothalamus of the brain* Mfcllerian eminence, in the cloaca of an embryo* Parietal eminence, in the parietal bone of the skull* Pyramidal eminence, in the middle ear* Thenar eminence, muscle on the thumb side of the handOther* Eminence Symphony Orchestra, based in Sydney, Australia* His Eminence, style of reference for high nobility and clergy* c9minence grise, or grey eminence, one who advises a leader in a secret, behind the scenes, fashion.* Eminence, a French brand of men’s luxury underwear.* Eminence, a skin care supplier in the US and world wide originating in Hungary.* Eminence, a popular manufacturer of loudspeakers based in the US:(

    October 26, 2013
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