Book Review: How to Fly a Horse

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The story of Mozart’s creativity always bothered me. I’ve studied creativity and innovation for most of my adult life. One of the most exciting projects of my professional life was helping develop a course in innovation and creativity for a major US corporation. One of our premises was that everyone is creative. But, then there was that Mozart story.

For all the other people I studied, the processes of creativity and innovation were the same, but Mozart was different. Mozart, supposedly, had his compositions come to him fully formed and he wrote them out as if taking dictation. That was starkly different from J. S. Bach, who reused chunks of earlier work in his compositions. It was different than Beethoven, who left us notebooks filled with crossing-outs and partial solutions.

Then, I read the preface to How to Fly a Horse. Kevin Ashton, tells us that the Mozart story was a forgery. It wasn’t how Mozart worked at all. In fact, we have several of Mozart’s letters and the observations of others that stated he pretty much worked the same as the rest of us. “Wow,” I thought. “This is going to be a great book.” The rest of the preface reinforced that thought.

“The creativity myth implies that few people can be creative, that any successful creator will experience dramatic flashes of insight, and that creating is more like magic than work. A rare few have what it takes, and for them it comes easy. Anyone else’s creative efforts are doomed. How to Fly a Horse is about why the myth is wrong.”

“Yay,” I thought. This is exactly what many of us have been saying for years. Creativity is something that human beings do naturally. We can’t help coming up with ideas. It’s the way we’re wired. And we can learn how to craft those ideas into innovations. So, I was sure this would be a great book. I was wrong.

My first inkling of the fact that I was wrong showed up in the first few pages of the book where Ashton says “Having ideas is not the same thing as being creative. Creation is execution, not inspiration.”

Well, no. At least not in common usage. In common usage, creativity is the process of coming up with ideas, though sometimes people use creativity as the term for good or striking or insightful ideas. Innovation is the part where we take those ideas, combine them, massage them and turn them into something useful.

That illustrates my major problem with this book. Ashton is so convinced that it’s important to debunk the “creation myth” that he insists on using his own language and his own interpretations of common language.

Take the phrase “how to fly a horse.” That phrase comes during a discussion of the Wright Brothers and it’s presented as if that’s how they thought about their process. But it has nothing to do with them. When you look closely you realize that it’s Ashton’s own phrase for the process of starting out in a rough way and developing solutions as you go. The Wright brothers and many others, including James Dyson, proceeded that way but only Ashton calls it “learning to fly a horse.”

Ashton says that creativity is nothing more than problem-solving. That’s only partially true. According to Ashton, there are no great flashes of insight, only small steps on the way to a solution. That’s rubbish.

I’ve been at this writing thing for most of my adult life. I’m now 70. Flashes of insight happen. They may not be the stuff of myth, the entire solution landing in your brain, fully formed, but they happen.

In fact, we know so much about how they happen that we can tell you the kinds of situations when they’re likely to happen. Almost a century ago, Graham Wallas described a cycle which included working on a problem (he called this stage “preparation”), setting it aside, which he called “incubation,” followed by an insight, which he called “illumination,” and then testing the idea and modifying it to a practical end, which he called “verification.” You don’t have to take Wallas’ word for this, or mine either. You don’t need any fancy equipment.

If you want to have those moments of illumination, do an activity where your body is occupied and your mind is left to roam free. Taking a shower is one favorite. Doing housework is another, and so is exercising. My personal favorite is to take a walk with nothing particular to do except walk. I do this at least a couple of times a week and I find that I have those moments of inspiration more often than not. I still must capture the inspiration or that good idea will flit away like a butterfly on the wind, but I get it.

I think that Ashton wants to be so original and iconoclastic that he just can’t bring himself to accept any of the common wisdom about creativity as is. That’s not good, and it makes the book less pleasant to read than it needs to be, but there are still plusses.

First, Ashton really does debunk the creativity myth that he sets up in the preface of the book. The idea that only some people are creative and their creativity involves a great flash of insight with the entire solution presented whole. I get that. I agree with that. I think research on creativity and innovation does, too.

The other plus is Ashton’s discussion of his thesis. He ranges over several studies and situations. He tells good stories. And, so, you will learn something about getting good ideas from this book.

But he still presents what he thinks is the one true answer. He insists on using language that is different than other people use. He insists on simply saying that things that are common to books and other teaching on creativity are wrong. The flash of inspiration thing is just one. In another place, he goes to a great deal of effort to point out that if you have several groups of people brainstorm ideas, you will get many of the same ideas in all the books and all the groups. That’s true, of course. What Ashton omits is that you will also get a unique idea or two from almost every group.

Ashton uses his own names and descriptions as if they were a secret decoder ring. The fact is that most of what he talks about is covered by other people as well. It’s just the language that’s different.

If you don’t mind the eccentric language and an author who insists that his way is the only way to understand the issue, you can get a lot of value from this book. If, on the other hand, those things bother you a lot, don’t waste your money on How to Fly a Horse.

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