The Mentors | Mar/Apr '15

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Searching for the source of creativity

If you were to Google the phrase “standing on the shoulder of giants,” you would find that it is most often associated with Sir Isaac Newton. The comment was part of a letter he wrote to another scientist discussing credit for his work. He was observing that all new ideas originate partly from work done by others years before. The comment became famous, and Newton is often cited as the originator. His use of the phrase underscores it’s very meaning because he borrowed it from others. The phrase itself can be traced at least as far back as the early Middle Ages.

In 1815, a letter from Mozart was published in a German music journal describing his creative process. It says that his great symphonies came to him during walks in the woods or late at night. They would be finished in his head, and all he would have to do was sit down and write them out. It has often been cited in books on the creative process. But Mozart never wrote the letter. It was a forgery used to promote the romantic notion of inspired genius. In letters he wrote to his family, he describes a much more laborious process, including many revisions, often starting and stopping over and over.

The point of all of this is that to create something new, one must, to some extent, depend on the work of others that have gone before. One can look at almost any significant achievement and see a long chain of discoveries that preceded it. In addition, rarely does something new and important ever come without significant time and effort. Any meaningful creative endeavor takes many hours, days, or often years to go from an idea to reality. Rarely if ever does it appear like a bolt out of the blue to special individuals. This comes as no real surprise to anyone who has ever brought a new product to market, written a book, or created a significant work of art; they know that the only thing special about them is their passion for their idea and the willingness to do the work no matter the obstacles. For those of us who have not spent much time in the creative world, it is a good thing to be reminded of because we all have the potential to contribute to our world in a creative way. Our specialty progresses through this process. Anyone with a curious mind can think of a new way to manage a surgical problem or create a new approach to treating an eye disease.

If you would like to learn more about how the creative process takes place, I would recommend reading the book where the idea for this edition’s column came from. How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery, by Kevin Ashton will start you down that path.