Combination is the Key

Combination is the Key

Can you imagine anything in nature materializing from nothing, from the ether, from thin air? It doesn’t happen, at least not this side of the Big Bang. Everything has its precursor, its progenitor.

The same is true with creative ideas.

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It may feel as though creative ideas hit us from “out of the blue,” especially the big a-ha moments. But in fact (and we know this when we stop to think about it) a-ha moments arrive following a period of prior attention and thought devoted to the subject. This is then usually followed by a period of incubation.

And what ends the incubation, bursting the idea into our consciousness?


To be specific: a novel combination. A startlingly new match-up of mental formations that we hadn’t had before, which corresponds perfectly, at least in that moment, to our creative problem.

Combining and Recombining

Our minds work at combining and recombining mental formations all the time — memories, constructs, etc. When a particularly new combination is made, it gets our attention as having creative potential. When it corresponds to something we’ve been working long and hard on, it produces the a-ha moment of insight.

So we can see that ideas, like other phenomena of nature, don’t come from nowhere. They have their progenitors. Their mamas and their papas. When the mamas and the papas produce novel combinations, new ideas are born.

Doing it on Purpose

This has some important implications for people who are interested in developing their creativity. For one thing, the more new experiences you have (and, on a different topic, the greater your depth of expertise in your creative domain), the more and greater variety of stuff you have circulating in your mind, just waiting to bump into each other and form new combinations.

Secondly, you don’t have to wait for the mixing chamber of your mind to do its work. You can provoke the combination action deliberately. This won’t necessarily elicit an a-ha insight, but it can definitely produce new creative ideas. And the practice alone strengthens your creative thinking muscles.

Specific Techniques

There are some applied creativity techniques you can learn that will help you do this. SCAMPER (which stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate and Rearrange) is one; Forced Connections is another.

You can see that SCAMPER is a tool for doing more than just combining, but it puts you in the right mindset, no matter which letter you’re working. Forced Connections asks you to force-fit disparate elements. These can both be objects you’re manipulating toward a common output, or you can “force-fit” your creative problem onto a non-related object, and see what insights this produces. (It’s easy to find information on these techniques; if you would like specific resources, feel free to reach out.)

Harnessing Your Creative Nature

Either way, any time you work deliberately to combine things in the service of new ideas, you’re participating consciously in the fundamental and dynamic action of creative combination that lies at the heart of creative thinking. It’s kind of like harnessing creative nature, in a way.

So get in the practice of making new combinations and see where it takes you. Stretch yourself. Remember: your ideas don’t come from nowhere. Why not get them gestating now? Combination is the key.


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