For Inspiration, Look Everywhere Else

I just ordered a book called The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. There are some downloadable sample chapters on the site, and one of the stories in the first one sold me on the book.

Schell talks about the first juggler’s festival that he went to when he was learning how to juggle, and how one guy in particular caught his attention:

He used patterns and rhythms that were unique, and his tricks, though not astonishing in their difficulty, were simply beautiful to watch. I had to watch a long time before I realized that some of the tricks that seemed so special and unique when he did them were things I could already do — but when
he did them they had such a different style, a different feeling, that they seemed like something completely new. I watched him for about twenty minutes, and suddenly he looked at me, and said “ Well? ”
“ Well, what? ” I said, kind of embarrassed.
“ Aren’t you going to try to copy me? ”
“ I — I don’t think I would know how, ” I stammered out.
He laughed. “ Yeah, they never can. Know why my tricks look so different? ”
“ Uh, practice? ” I managed.
“ No — everybody practices. Look around! They’re all practicing. No, my tricks look different because of where I get them. These guys, they get their tricks from each other. Which is fine — you can learn a lot that way. But it will never make you stand out. ”
I thought about it. “ So where do you get them? ” I asked. “ Books? ”
“ Ha! Books. That’s a good one. No, not books. You wanna know the secret? ”
“ Sure. ”
“ The secret is: don’t look to other jugglers for inspiration — look everywhere else. ”

This is a great innovation lesson. To be genuinely unique, to stand out from everyone else that is trying to do what you do, you need to have novel ideas. And novel ideas usually come from connecting things in unique ways – connecting ideas is the fundamental creative act in innovation.


The juggler that Schell was talking to did routines inspired by watching ballet, by seeing a flock of geese take off, and by observing a paper punch machine. None of them came from watching other jugglers. And when people tried to copy him, they might be able to replicate the moves, but without having the original inspiration in their heads, the routines never looked the same.

Having a great depth of knowledge in your field is an essential part of innovating. But depth alone isn’t enough. You need to find these weird connections to come up with unique ideas.

We’ve talked before about some techniques for getting outside of your normal routine in order to make these kinds of connections.

But the key lesson is this – to innovate in a particular industry, for inspiration look everywhere else.

(picture from flickr/Dark Botxy under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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