Thoughts on How to Fly a Horse’

Kevin Ashton’s How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery’ by Kevin Ashton [website] is a fine myth-busting attempt in how creation happens. Our stereotypical idea of creation is the ah-ha’ moments and the outsized role of the subconscious or even thoughts that creating something new is the privilege of a chosen few amongst us. Ashton systematically dismantles those myths by citing research studies and historical precedents on the creation process; including the much-vaunted Archimedes Eureka’ moment.

Coming up with a solution or an idea is often the result of hours of deliberation and attempts. There is no god-given gift to a few as is made evident in the story of Edmond, the 12-year-old slave who discovered how to pollinate vanilla; something that’s a big part of multi-billion-dollar industries now.

Creating is not extraordinary, even if its results sometimes are. Creation is human. It is all of us. It is everybody.”

Or how subjugation of women in the thought industry may have bereft us of progress and creativity; as was with the infuriating case of Rosalind Franklin. It makes you think of how many other ordinary human beings are out there who haven’t gotten a chance to realize their creativity not because they are unable but simply because they haven’t been accorded the opportunity or have been led to believe that they can’t. In fact, the whole concept of a genius” is laid bare.

The capacity to create was starting to look … like an innate function of the human brain — possible with standard equipment, no genius necessary.”

The central premise of this book finds much in common with my current work where we are examining the long-term effects and academic outcomes of believing in (or teaching to) a growth mindset. Simply helping children believe that intelligence (and ergo creativity) is not innate and can in fact be cultivated leads to delightful and often unexpected outcomes. The Marshmallow Challenge (no, not that one) exemplifies how creativity among children is often squelched by formal education that regresses them to the mean. So much so that by the time you’re in business school, you’re been beaten by kindergarteners by a significant margin in terms of creativity.

The later chapters resonated with me especially in light of my recent professional changes. I cannot begin to describe how much I related to the following passage:

Compliance is more important than creation in most organizations, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. If you comply but do not create, you may be promoted. If you create but do not comply, you will be fired. When rewards are given for compliance, not contribution, we call it”office politics“.”

Can someone both be inventive and follow the hidden curriculum that puts compliance and loyalty over creation and discovery? Perhaps but both things are opposites. Also why bother? Why spend the energy and imagination needed to maintain a false identity — to be seen as a conforming Clark Kent so you can keep your creative super self hidden — when you can get equally good results by conforming without creating or by taking your creative abilities somewhere where they will be appreciated? This is a dilemma creative people face everywhere. They seldom choose to resolve it by being secretly creative. Most people resign or become resigned after taking a new idea to their boss for evaluation.”

I have considered myself a creative person and over the years have stepped outside the bounds of a traditional career path. I’ve never been one for conformity and definitely haven’t been a yes man’. Add a dollop of social capital and you often start seeing other factors at play that are often dismissed, as Ashton above highlights, as office politics”. But there are always alternate routes for creative people and let alone two paths, if you are really looking, there can be several ones diverging in the woods.

Finally, although there are plenty of paragraphs in the book worth highlighting, I’ll share this one 1 that’s relevant to blogging or rather all forms of writing:

A victim of writer’s block” is not unable to write. He or she can still hold the pen, can still press the keys on the typewriter, can still power up the word processor. The only thing a writer suffering from writer’s block cannot do is to write something they think is good. The condition is not writer’s block, it is write-something-I-think-is-good block. The cure is self-evident: write something you think is bad.

Writer’s block is the mistake of believing in constant peak performance. Peaks cannot be constant; they are, by definition, exceptional. You will have good days and bad days, but the only bad work you can do is the work you do not do. Great creators work whether they feel like it or not, whether they are in the mood or not, whether they are inspired or not. Be chronic, not acute. Success doesn’t strike; it accumulates.”

Go forth and create.


  1. Originally from Woody Allen.

January 14, 2019 · books · review


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