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How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery Paperback – September 15, 2015
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“Entertaining. . . . [E]nlightening. . . . Might be the genre’s be all and end all. . . . If you want to tap your creative potential, buy this book. It’s the last one you’ll ever need to read.”
“One of the most creative books on creativity I have ever read, a genuinely inspiring journey through the worlds of art, science, business and culture that will forever change how you think about where new ideas come from.”
—William C. Taylor, cofounder and editor of Fast Company and author of Practically Radical
“[Ashton’s] is a democratic idea—a scientific version of the American dream. . . . [A]n approachable, thought-provoking book that encourages everyone to be the best they can be.”
—The Guardian (London)
“[How to Fly a Horse] takes on creation’s most pernicious clichés. . . . [Ashton] arrives at his theories by dint of his own hard work. . . . Being a genius is hard work. But that spark is in all of us.”
—The Washington Post
“An inspiring vision of creativity that’s littered with practical advice, and is a cracking read to boot.”
“[An] entertaining and inspiring meditation on the nature of creative innovation... Fans of Malcolm Gladwell and Stephen Levitt will enjoy Ashton’s hybrid nonfiction style, which builds a compelling cultural treatise from a coalescence of engaging anecdotes.”
“Ashton’s beautifully written exploration of creativity explodes so many myths and opens so many doors that readers, like me, will be left reeling with possibilities. We can all create, we can all innovate. Move over, Malcolm Gladwell; Ashton has done you one better.”
—Larry Downes, author of the New York Times bestseller Unleashing the Killer App and co-author of Big Bang Disruption
“If you have ever wondered what it takes to create something, read this inspiring and insightful book. Using examples ranging from Mozart to the Muppets, Kevin Ashton shows how to tap the creative abilities that lurk in us all. There are no secrets, no shortcuts; just ordinary steps we can all take to bring something new into the world. Ashton’s message is direct and hopeful: creativity isn’t just for geniuses—it’s for everybody.”
—Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes
“A detailed and persuasive argument for how creativity actually works—not through magical bursts of inspiration but with careful thought, dogged problem-solving, and hard-won insight. Ashton draws on a wealth of illuminating and entertaining stories from the annals of business, science, and the arts to show how any of us can apply this process to our own work.”
—Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
“If you consider yourself a curious person then you will love this book. Ashton shares so many delightful stories of where things come from and how things came to be, I seriously believe that it will make anyone who reads it smarter.”
—Simon Sinek, New York Times bestselling author of Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last
“How to Fly a Horse solves the mysteries of invention. Kevin Ashton, the innovator who coined the ‘internet of things,’ shows that creativity is more often the result of ordinary steps than extraordinary leaps. With engrossing stories, provocative studies, and lucid writing, this book is not to be missed.”
—Adam Grant, professor of management at the Wharton School and New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take
“Kevin Ashton’s new book How to Fly a Horse is all about the creative sorcery and motivational magic necessary to make impossible things happen in teams or as individuals. Through numerous examples of creative genius ranging from Einstein to the creators of South Park to the invention of jet planes and concertos, Ashton reveals the secrets of the great scientists, artists, and industrialists of the last few centuries.”
—John Maeda, author of The Laws of Simplicity and founder of the SIMPLICITY Consortium at the MIT Media Lab
About the Author
Kevin Ashton led pioneering work on RFID (radio frequency identification) networks, for which he coined the term “the Internet of Things,” and cofounded the Auto-ID Center at MIT. His writing about innovation and technology has appeared in Quartz, Medium, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.
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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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Kevin Ashton was an Executive Director and visiting engineer at MIT, where he led work on computing for computing in the future, which he called ‘the Internet of...Read more