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Ask HN: Does being practical act as a hinderance to one’s imagination?
159 points by itsmefaz on Nov 16, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments
I'm asking this from the context of ideas & solutions, I'm facing this sort of struggle that I'm unable to find solution that is completely outrageous. I feel that my level-headedness could be one of the factors for my failure to come up with some out-of-the-box thinking.

HN, am I valid in this assumption or completely stupid?

What you're looking for is something called "Lateral Thinking" [1]. Using one's prefrontal cortex "silences" their inner genius and prevents "Ah ha!" moments. This is why people get breakthrough ideas in the shower, going to the bathroom, or driving. The "step-by-step" executive planning part of the brain is not engaged in these moments.

John Cleese has given talks throughout the years about how to be creative, and they're very good. [2]

The Programmer's Stone is also a good source of information about this topic. Instead of "lateral thinking", the authors refer to "mapping" and "packing". Packing is when you're in "step-by-step" mode. When programmers refer to "being in the flow", they're probably referring to the state of mapping or lateral thinking. [3]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lateral_thinking

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y70nbDJI5Uk

[3] http://programmersstone.com/

I agree this is probably what was meant by "imaginative" in the original question. But, it doesn't directly address the core question of causality: does practicality limit imagination and lateral thinking? I think the answer is, "no". Practicality is largely in the domain of decisions and behavior. In contrast, imagination is in the domain of thought and speculation.

To not allow your imagination to run ahead of or independently of your behavior, to not allow yourself any mental play, is to be unimaginative. That's tautological. If you truly find yourself unable to imagine any outrageous ideas, you have to look elsewhere than pragmatism if seeking a cure. You need to rediscover how to play. In your head. Pragmatism is a filter to decide when to put some of your play ideas into practice, not a filter for thought itself.

There are different challenges someone else might face, requiring different analysis. What if you are able to come up with outrageous and lateral ideas, but are afraid to voice them? Or you are unable to ground the ideas in any kind of reality, i.e. pure fantasy rather than plausible-if-ridiculous? Or do you find challenges in the social environment of getting any air time for your ideas among your peers...?

I loved Cleese's talk and I wonder if there's the inverse of it somewhere? On the opposite side of the spectrum are those of us who make all sorts of wonderful connections but have difficulty putting A next to B next to C.

Perhaps it's Elon Musk's chats on thinking in first principles, but I'd love if anyone knows some introductions to linear, tight-knit, strategic thinking.

Edit: I also wonder if books on clarity in writing like Zissner's "On Writing Well" qualifies here. Writing is linear and the practice of it presumably should help the writer think more clearly.

+1 to that. Creative solutions come when you apply a working pattern to an unexpected subject. You need both knowing multiple fields and experience crossing ideas.

Research Edward De Bono for much more information on lateral thinking, creativity, and thinking

Great question.

In my experience, I actually think it can -- but you can overcome it, too.

I grew up programming and always excelling at concrete, black-and-white, logic-based types of things (math, physics, etc.).

Later I wanted to pursue more artistic things, and discovered I simply didn't know how to think imaginatively, instead of analytically.

After a while, I learned how to "let go" of my analytical brain so that my artistic/subconscious brain could be free to "make connections" between things that had no logical connection on the surface.

And now I have no problem with it -- so it's never "too late" -- but they're definitely two "modes" of my brain I have to consciously switch between. And they're largely "separate" modes that both have to be developed/strengthened through practice.

If you want to work on imagination, I highly recommend things like writing classes, improv classes, acting classes, painting classes, all that stuff. I think classes with other people in this context are really important, because the instructor and other students' work will give you a lot of examples of creativity to inspire you and build you up. If you stick solo (as I did at first) you may find yourself just applying the same "analytical" solutions you're familiar with, and not being forced to expand your imagination/creativity.

I'm not able to speak authoritatively on this subject (after who the heck am I? I'm creative in spurts but have no deep insight on the process), but as an observer of human nature, engineers do seem especially weak at divergent thinking -- they can't help obsessing over how something might fail almost as soon as as they hear an idea.

This is a blocker. One of the ways to unblock this, I'm told, is the "improv" mantra of "yes, and" -- meaning, if someone states an idea, instead of saying "yes, but", you say "yes, and" and build upon it. For instance, someone says "I'm a unicorn fireman", you say, "yes, and your horn is a nozzle for a high-pressure hose". And you keep building.

For years I could never quite figure out how this applied to engineering problems so I thought "yes, and" was mostly stupid and unworkable (except in the arts) -- because what if the other person's wrong? How do I "yes, and" someone who says "the earth is flat"?

But one of Paul Graham's tweets helped me reframe this in a way that is palatable to even engineer-types. He says (paraphrased):

"Problem solving is 2 phase approach: (1) idea generation / mistake making, and then (2) aggressively fixing those mistakes / editing. We often shortcut the process by editing too soon."

In other words: engineers are only good at "yes, but" (convergent thinking phase) and prematurely shut down the "yes, and" (divergent thinking phase). So how about we treat thinking as a two-phase problem and give divergent thinking some room? We can still apply pragmatism/practicality ... but later, after we've "yes, and"ed.

Alls we're saying is, give "yes, and" a chance.

> In other words: engineers are only good at "yes, but" (convergent thinking phase) and prematurely shut down the "yes, and" (divergent thinking phase).

I do this sometimes. In many cases, I feel like "yes, and" would be an endorsement of the original idea. If I say "yes, and" and then there are delays or problems in implementation because of things that would have been obvious to "no, but", the question becomes "why wasn't this brought up earlier on before people sunk so much time in." In the reverse case, saying "no, but" in a case where the problem is easily surmountable just makes the questioner look like a good planner. So in that sense the reason devs tend to "no, but" is matter of them responding to incentives; it's not that they can't think divergently, it's that they're putting themselves at risk for little reward for doing so.

> So how about we treat thinking as a two-phase problem and give divergent thinking some room?

Yes, I think separating these two phases (and thus separating "throwing an idea out there" from "endorsing an idea as definitely workable with no foreseeable complications") would be very helpful.

I am a fan of cultivating "yes and" culture when appropriate, but I 100% agree with your concern. Management must earn the trust of engineers before they can expect them to hold off on the "yes, but" interjections. Most management does not earn that trust for exactly the reason you note.

engineers are only good at "yes, but"

Being primarily an engineer myself, I can't help to say 'yes, but' you might want to rephrase this into 'untrained engineers' or 'some engineers' or 'uncreative engineers' or similar. Don't get me wrong, I know the people you talk about and I simply cannot deny I used to be like this myself sometimes but over the years this changed into something bimodal. I.e. when needed I will always fall back to 'how can this fail' mode - just because it's often required to properly fix/create things which won't brake, but I find myself defaulting to generating tons of ideas. But I'm also creative b nature so that helps. In fact most other engineers (by education or not, doesn't matter) I know also clearly use a mix of both modes. There's only a couple which don't (and even some which default to only creating a mess, not seeing any problem, but that's something else and I'm not sure if it's an engineer:).

> "the earth is flat"

yes, and "resting on the backs of four huge elephants which are in turn standing on the back of an enormous turtle"

I'm engineer :)

It's only a blocker if you're using the "buts" to dismiss the idea out of anxiety. Most "divergent thinking" ideas sound cool on paper but are horrible in reality for a bunch of reasons unforeseen at the generation of the idea (Communism and Eugenics come to mind). Accounting for the potential negatives up front is just due diligence and good design. Then you do a risk analysis and determine if the risk of the negatives is worth the potential positives.

To use your "I'm a unicorn fireman" example, sure that conversation can be fun.. and what does the winner get? With that example you're not building a system to be used by humans in the real world, you're doing stream-of-consciousness thought experiments, more art than engineering. There are no solid constraints.

Sure there's some debatable evidence that creativity can be "practiced" and generally applied, but when you're trying to build a better airplane putting a giant swimming pool in the nosecone is probably not a good idea for a whole host of reasons and it's best that you account for those before building the thing.

Software and the other arts largely benefit from cheap iteration cycles and relatively low-impact mistakes. And even in those cases if you "yes and" too much and try to account for the mistakes later you can find yourself with a horrible, underthought design and swamped trying to fix all the problems at once. Then all those negative constraints you ignored in the name of "divergent thinking" suddenly make themselves known. Many a failed startup led by a Steve Jobs wannabe is a perfect example of this.

I wonder if you might be demonstrating the principle in your response?

I think the main point is that there may be advantages to explicitly giving room to both divergent and convergent thinking to exist in separate phases (this could be done in one cycle -- there's nothing that says any of the cute unworkable ideas would ever leave the meeting room or shopfloor or prototype. Reality/logic/laws of nature are the final arbiters).

Constraints/refinements/criticisms will emerge in the second phase, but we often don't give room to the first because we tend to want to edit too soon, and if we're honest, our impulse criticisms going to be based on our past experience and emotion rather than a cool, deliberate, rational analysis process or empirical reality.

A disciplined balance is what is sought. In creative processes, withholding judgment during ideation is a basic principle -- but many engineering types are too quick to ignore it, wanting to filter almost immediately. This is ok if the space is well-understood and what you're doing is cookie cutter (which to be honest, is all most engineers do), but definitely a blocker if you really want to challenge ideas and do something truly new. It snuffs out ideas pre-maturely and doesn't allow them to potentially grow into something that would work.

An example of this: I was against neural networks for years because they lacked explainability ("black boxes" was my criticism of them), and whenever someone brought them up I would enumerate my usual list of criticisms of why they would never work -- all rational and mathematically watertight. It became so habitual that a few good ideas (where neural networks actually would have worked if we had tried them, albeit it had to be in creative ways) passed us by. I snuffed that idea out before it had a chance to emerge in a form that I would have recognized as something workable.

Fair enough. I'd definitely agree there needs to be a disciplined balance, too much conservatism is just as bad as too little. But in defense of Engineers in general, it's quite possible that in their experience they've seen many situations where negatives ignored grew out of control.

An example I experienced a couple of weeks ago: Someone let code that "just works" slide through a code review back in 2017. That code had a hard-coded value that would have been easy to determine dynamically (he just set a max at an arbitrary value instead of counting how many of a resource there were) but wasn't due to general lack of discipline. Now it's a minor issue, and the code did indeed work up until a couple of weeks ago. Then the number of the resource in question changed, and all of a sudden that hard-coded max was no longer accurate.

The error manifested as a segfault in our C++ but only sporadically and was hard to reproduce when we didn't know what the issue was. Doesn't help that it was in a mountain of legacy spaghetti code. It took me and two other people two days to track down the original cause, which if you add up our de-facto hourly rates cost the company thousands of dollars. All because of one little minor piece of sloppy code.

Now imagine the effects of bigger, grander sloppiness at the design level. And then those effects get compounded because they're conveniently ignored and integrated into still further mistakes, and you get an exponentially multiplying mess.

I'm willing to bet many professional engineers have had an experience similar to that, and if they care about their craft at all it was likely extremely frustrating and painful to deal with. So it's not that they're "bad at divergent thinking" so much as they've been trained by experience to believe that the benefits of divergent thinking aren't worth the potential downsides. Whether that's an unconscious bias that should be worked against is an interesting question.

Thanks for your thoughts. I appreciate where you're coming from -- and indeed engineers are wired to be critical and to eschew sloppiness because it is useful (indeed often crucial) in execution (as your anecdote bears out -- that has happened to me many times).

But that superpower, which is so instrumental for execution, seems to me to be simultaneously deleterious to creative enterprises. It is at best an incomplete superpower.

I would also say that the reverse is true. Artsy creative types who are gifted at divergent thinking, but not convergent, are typically weak at execution so their products never gain traction or do not actually work.

Creative endeavors are by nature "sloppy". Hence the need to withhold judgment and let an idea play out via a divergent phase, and then bring it back through the convergent phase.

It would seem to me that both rationals and creatives have blind spots, hence the usefulness of a 2-phase process.

"Outrageous" or "out-of-the-box" solutions are just very lateral solutions to a problem, and in an engineering context you can do this by questioning the assumptions of the problem until you've reframed it enough to allow these solutions to seem more "obvious".

Here's a very silly and simple example: you have an engineering task to search for an ID in a tree data structure. You may know several standard methods off the top of your head or you may look up the best performing algorithm online. Either way, the solution is the expected one.

But let's abstract the problem: Why do you need to search for an ID in a tree data structure? Do you need a tree in order to keep track of the path and the IDs you pass? If not, then why not scrap the tree completely and go with a hash map of key/value pairs? That solution is both faster and easier to implement, but it only occurs if you think about the goal of the problem instead of the problem itself. You can abstract it even further and ask whether IDs are required at all, and if they aren't what other solutions could be used to accomplish the same goal. This is a very, very simple example but the idea can be applied to varying degrees in any problem, and kind of comes to the idea of finding first principles in physics.

Agree with this approach. I had a manager tell me once that managers think differently than engineers and I asked him to explain. He gave the example of asking an engineer how to turn on a light bulb. The engineer (me) would/did say to flip the light switch. He said that manager would ask why do you need to turn on the light bulb? What is it in the room that needs to be illuminated? Maybe your real purpose is to figure out if there is a certain item in the room, and there is a better way to figure that out than turning on the switch.

As an engineer, I am aware that my mind often plots the shortest path from problem to solution, without ever stopping to question the problem definition. Sometimes reframing the problem is the best way to get to a more creative solution.

As an engineer, the thing I always prided myself on was always asking my customers/stakeholders ”Ok but what’s the problem you’re solving? Why do you need this?” before jumping to a solution to their initial ask.

Often they ask for a solution to the 3rd step in their process where they got stuck and it turns out the underlying problem is easier/faster to solve

The creativity process comes from exploration and exploitation. The more experienced you get, the more you move towards exploitation and away from exploration. So you will need to revert back a bit.

Think like a child, or like someone who would not have much idea about your subject. Allow yourself to make wild guesses, allow yourself to make shortcuts and unexplained decisions, in your mind, wander aimlessly. Move from one potential outrageous solution to another, without judging. Try to have fun with it. Don't note anything down. You think something is bad? Doesn't matter. You think something is good? Doesn't matter. Keep exploring.

After you are tired of this, stop. Try to write down what you remember. Then sleep on it, without looking at what you wrote before, write down what you remember again. Now you can look at what you wrote in both times.

Say you find a solution that is completely outrageous. How can you adjust a part of it to make it a bit less outrageous? Divide it to chunks. There will be parts you understand and parts you don't. There will be parts that are wrong and parts that are not. Divide and conquer.

I don't think so. I have worked on problems where most of the team had their head in the clouds, dreaming up wild solutions, and then we end up going with a team member's solution who suggests something very easy, requiring almost no technical skill, that should have been obvious, but all of us missed.

Practical is good. What will actually kill your creativity is self-doubt. Stop doubting yourself and be happy with the way you are.

I think that maybe it's the difference between simply "imaginative" and "creative" - creative implies that you're involved in the act of creation. Things can't be created in impossible contexts, so part of being creative is understanding and accounting for the constraints you're working under.

And I'd even say that the issue is not that practicality kills creativity, it's that creativity is hindered if a person doesn't fully understand the context in which they're creating.

This is something that I've thought about quite a bit over the years. My current resolution is that practicality and unbridled imagination are both attributes of a person's mental makeup - and that we probably grow up with an affinity in one direction or the other... But that it's a false dichotomy to say that one must necessarily inhibit the other. It's just that to find a synergistic balance between the two implies deliberate introspection, practice, and cultivation to achieve the most beneficial balance. In my case, I arrived from the more laterally minded side - fancied I might be a sculptor before differentiating professionally into an engineer. Dreaming big was easy, but the self-work to be done was to fortify the practical strengths needed to synthesize the dreams with what is practically achievable. Not saying its easy, but I am saying that it's not impossible.

So, if you want to start to even out your levelheadedness then there are a lot of fun avenues to pursue. Creative writing, read some surrealist literature, talk with people who have experimented with psychedelics and witnessed the preposterous cognitive edifices of modern culture fall to shimmering disjoint pieces before their eyes, etc etc. Then work on reconciling the cognitive dissonances along the way.

Yes, but I don't see it as a fundamental personality trait so much as a state of mind.

The pragmatic mindset naturally simplifies, reduces, focuses, makes early judgement calls about what trains of thought are unlikely to yield results. The opposite of that is to be open and curious, to let thoughts expand and meander without any clear destination or utility and to see where those take you without assuming you know what is or isn't possible. That's where divergent imagination really gets going.

Each mindset serves a purpose; it's beneficial to learn how to shift between them as needed.

I would love to say "No! This is not the case at all! One can act in either mode just fine. We're not prisoners of our tendencies!"

But from my experience with myself and friends, I think, sadly, this is typically not the case. People can act in either mode, but tend to have a proclivity, whether born or cultivated, for one over the other. You can do the other, but it will require extra effort for lesser results.

There are unicorns that can do both brilliantly. But much fewer and farther between than those who claim they can do both.

I've always been strongly on the engineery side myself, but have tended to fall in with artistic types socially. In my experience, artsies often fall short of being able to articulate ideas concretely, and thus can't easily interface with people that need a delineated plan. Which makes us engineeries tend to think they're soft brained. But in fact, they can often execute even highly complex systematic projects well. They just can't tell you how they did it.

Not really. Ideas are just patterns. Apply a pattern from something else to something else. A lot of what I do comes from sports or military.

If you're not getting enough ideas, think laterally, learn about other fields. See how chess players think, martial artists, football players, soldiers, food franchising, theology. Every field has its own 'common practice' which seems really obvious to the people in the field, but strange and new in a different field.

Agreed. My PhD research is inspired by the simple fact that we drill in martial arts, so can we apply similar 'common practices' in CS education.

Neat dissertation topic! I've used code golf for this very thing. It really forces you to learn the weird nooks and crannies of a language, and try lots of different strategies.

There is work by Frank Vahid (founder of ZyBooks) on many small programs and how students performed comparable to other traditional styles.

However, in the vein of this thread, I think that is only playing one note to learning CS. When I compare CS to martial arts (MA), I consider the traditional programming exercise akin to sparring. It is real world situated, but with the number of new variables it is difficult to successfully demonstrate or refine your understanding. MA, like CS, has a high attrition rate to start, and for reasons I consider isomorphic - a false sense of what CS/MA is and the demoralizing effect of "losing" constantly (sparring or debugging).

So, in MA, there are attempts to make sparring less intimidating. You can pair equal experienced partners or against an understanding senior, but you also focus on drills. If we consider sparring as a combination of problem solving and applying technique in the moment, then drilling removes the problem solving aspect to allow for technique refinement.

So, in combination with traditional programming exercises, my current work is looking at novel practice activities separate from tradition - for example, error finding, output prediction, and even typing exercises (which I have published on).

That's very interesting. I considering doing this but it seemed like an awful lot of work needed to start. There was a boom of 'learn to code' sites recently but looks like nobody really tackled it from that angle.

It may help to adapt some tools. For example, in the tabletop RPG world, a lot of random tables are used to develop new concepts for stories, characters, interactions, missions, and so on. You roll the dice a few times and suddenly you have a very unique and imaginative idea indeed. You can draw up your own random tables and tweak them over time, like creating software.

There are also sensory cues: You might choose a new location to do your gaming, play some appropriate mood music, etc. On one of my first ever "software guy does graphic design" projects, I asked the client what music they liked, and then listened to that for about 3 days straight. It really helped me get into the correct problem-solving lens where more appropriate colors, shapes, fonts, and textures were concerned.

On top of that you may find there are supplements that help you out. Personally if I'm running on 8+ hours of sleep and take about 100mg caffeine, I feel like I can solve just about any problem and new ideas are more likely to seem fun. ;-)

In the past I wrote some randomization software to help me solve problems. One of my favorites simply picks random words out of a dictionary. Each word is treated as a metaphor. I remember once a client said, "I thought I knew exactly what you'd say, but that is an idea that never would have occurred to me." This was my goal.

IMO there's a lot of space to grow in this area even if you feel like a potato where your imagination is concerned, and the process can be really enjoyable. Good luck to you.

I'm sure you have a lot of good advice in the comments, thought I'd throw in how I like to think about this.

Being practical means things that are doable. So it makes sense to limit whatever you do to that, otherwise you'll be in the domain of unrealistic / never gonna work.

The problem is, what is doable is not an absolute. What's practical is different for everyone. You'll define it based on what you experienced / heard about. Fact is you only hear what resonates with you, aka you're not even going to consider things that seem ridiculous, based on your experience.

There's two sides to every story and it seems you're missing one. In my view, being practical is a way of talking yourself out of ideas that you don't want to do.

Look at this way, if you stick to being practical you'll only every do things that have a close to 100% chance of working (in your view). This would only work if you knew everything. Absolute knowledge.

You have no idea what is possible, so do your best (keep trying) and don't overanalyze.

I've heard somewhere you can turn this mentality around by forcing yourself to come up with reasons this could work, rather than why it couldn't. Make a list.

As a personality trait? No. As a mode of thought? Yes.

You can learn a new mode of thought. You have to be open, and not dismiss things early, which means allowing yourself to follow ideas which have obvious flaws or which totally impractical. It helps to have confidence that you'll use your practical, analytical, and more closed mode of thought later. But first you've gotta jump out of the local maxima and try to find something new. Generate ideas as if you're high; highdeas are usually bad and that's ok, your sober self will be around to check it out later. Maybe the idea will be thrown away then, and maybe it won't.

There's a great John Cleese talk on open vs closed thinking that you could look up on YouTube. A good book on the subject is A Whack On The Side Of The Head.

Edit: That said, there's also something to working with another person, and each focusing on one of these roles more than the other. Like author and editor. Lots of things follow this pattern of splitting these roles up among people.

Very well put! I'll add that dismissing things early tends to act as a roadblock to further creative pathways. It's almost exactly why you don't shoot down ideas while brainstorming; it kills the environment of creativity the exercise is intended to foster.

I recommend Alan Watts as well: https://youtu.be/iHcxkmwBOJY

If you have access to friends or family with children the next time you're hanging out you should try asking the kids a simplified kid friendly form of the problem you're trying to solve. They'll usually give you a completely correct answer that interprets the question in a way you never would. It's both interesting and enlightening.

Since they haven't internalized the exact definitions of the words they're using or hearing, or even how the world works from a physical or logical perspective you literally can't replicate it with your adult brain. You know too much. It's kinda cool.

A half decent article on the subject: https://effectiviology.com/curse-of-knowledge/

I constantly perceive that this is a major problem in modern UI designs, whereas in the past people thought really hard about usability, because they didn't grow up using computers, everything was new.

I don't think being practical acts as a hindrance to one's imagination. It's critical to actually accomplishing creative ideas. Each skill just needs to be engaged when they're most useful. If you're trying to be creative, then you should be actively trying to pause thinking practically. Then, once you think you've "got something", start looking at the idea practically to see if it's even possible. Repeat until you have a creative solution that might just work. Being imaginative let's you fly, being practical helps you land.

Somewhat related - how my brain kept me from founding YouTube


Practicality is a choice whereas creativity is a poorly-understood synthesis process. If you're very level headed, it just means that you are quick to discard ideas that sounds risky, difficult, or improbable. If you are looking for more creative solutions, try allowing yourself to day-dream a little more or to work on some ideas that you immediately feel are impractical. It will take time to create a pattern of habit where you can suspend your critical side long enough to explore imaginative ideas. The fastest route to this is chemical. But. You know. That's not for everyone.

Oh! Also try allowing your brain some breathing room. Walk away from the problem and do something else. Your brain will work on it in the background. The more you dwell on it in your conscious mind, the more you will focus your existing solutions down.

Edit: You must learn to trust your subconscious to help you with keeping an active eye on it. Just as you must trust employees to do their work without micromanaging them and breathing down their necks the whole time.


You must learn to trust your subconscious to help you with keeping an active eye on it. Just as you must trust employees to do their work without micromanaging them and breathing down their necks the whole time.

One technique I learned in 5th grade is called "brainstorming." It's a simple concept---you get a group together (or you can do this alone---you just skip one step). You establish a clear problem statement. Then for 10 or 15 minutes, everybody writes down ideas to solve the problem. Nothing detailed, just a few words per idea. And no judgement at this time. Just ideas, no matter how silly ("feed mayonnaise to tuna fish" for example) until time is out.

Then one person starts reading their list, and everybody checks their lists for that idea and cross it out. Then the next person goes, reading any remaining ideas and so on until all you have left are unique ideas (and it doesn't matter if all your ideas are crossed out---remember, no judgements yet). If you are alone, you can skip this step.

Then, and only then, do you go through the final list of ideas and discuss them. Here, you judge the ideas, reject some, combine others, mix, match, and puree until you get something that works.

No it doesn’t. Pragmatic thinking is just another mental algorithm. You just haven’t learn any good out-of-the-box thinking algorithms. May I suggest Inside the Box? https://www.amazon.com/Inside-Box-Creativity-Breakthrough-Re...

From the perspective of mechanical design (but definitely extends to things like art and I would assume coding), I don't really agree, but it is a learned skill. In essence, being creative is a loop between coming up with ideas, and then looking at them through a practical lens. Being practical comes easy to most technical people, so they need to deliberately let that go to properly iterate through the cycle.

Truly innovative solutions to problems are few and far between. Nearly everything is a combination or extension of solutions that have come before. Being good at coming up with ideas is mostly having a good database of knowledge to draw from, and taking the extension or combination process a couple steps too far before tossing out impractical ideas. This is why brainstorming can be effective, if you are working with someone where you feed off each other's ideas, the process can be a lot more natural rather than deliberate.

I can't say I've noticed much of a difference in my professional life. As I've gotten older and gained more experience, my mental toolbox has increased in size and refined in quality. This leads to more solutions being clear from the get-go than when I was younger.

But when nothing comes to mind up front? If anything, I feel that my ability to sort the 'hey, that just might work!' wheat from the fanciful chaff is sharper than before.

That doesn't mean I can force it, and I think this point is important enough to emphasize- if I hit a block on an obvious next step, I stop and go for a walk. Listen to music, hang out with my dogs. Maybe play with a recipe in the kitchen, or create a new belt hell-world in Factorio. Let your 'default mode' network ruminate and digest. Nine times out of ten by the next day I've discovered a new approach to work with.

I don’t have an answer at the moment.

But a suggestion: try doing mundane actions like brushing teeth or writing on your lesser dominant side. Example: if you are right handed, try brushing your teeth with your left hand etc. try with various tasks. do this for maybe a week and let us know if you notice a difference re how you think.

I don't think being practical hinders one's imagination (I would consider myself both imaginativ and very practical).

I know of two school of thought regarding the origin of original ideas :

- Original ideas stem from ignorance of the existing idea and being an outsider in the domain. I don't think this is sustainable as, at some point, you have to become familiar with the domain to which you want to contribute.

- Original ideas comme from a deep knowlege of the domain and its history which lets you understand how new concepts you meet might fit in the overall puzzle.

Overall, if you have problems coming out with outrageous new ideas, I would recommend practice : whenever you enconter a problem, try to design a solution for it (it doesn't matter if you never implement it) and only then research what kind of solution is used to solve this problem. With time you should become familiar with your own creativ process.

Yes, pragmatic and practical are directly opposed to clever or creative thinking. The trick is to know when to apply each one, and to apply enough of the former to have time for the latter.

In every application or machine I write code for, there is typically one, sometimes two, really interesting problems. But there are innumerable bits of boring business logic to implement along the way. You sometimes need to be willing to have a method copy-pasted with trivial changes in three places (which bothers me sometimes, thinking it would be better to have one method with a parameter to select between the variations) in order to have time to develop an extensible, adjustable, clever solution somewhere else.

Constraints can actually breed creativity, though you might be asking a slightly different question.

Check out the writing of David Kelly and his brother (of IDEO) — they’ve probably done more than anyone else in the field to try and crack the formula of creative thinking.

Most of my creativity comes from finding practical solutions to complex problems.

If something seems to complex or hard, I figure their must be an easier way to solve it.

A lot of it is stepping back and questioning the original problem you are trying to solve.

Yes. (But no, you're not completely stupid). In general, your question/comment reminded me of this:

"The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected."

-- Bertrand Russell

>my level-headedness could be one of the factors for my failure to come up with some out-of-the-box thinking.

You need to be able to turn this off during brainstorming. i.e. Suspend disbelief for a bit. Like watching a Marvel movie - live in the moment.

Broadly - quite the opposite.

The stuff my cash constrained cousins living in Namibia come up with blows my mind. Both practical and imaginative.

e.g. Building large RC planes from scratch (electronics excl). And here I thought my paper planes were grand.


One of them got told there is no cash for uni, if he wants to go he needs to make it happen on his own. Guess who is now the proud owner of a bee keeping operation.

So, I grew up drawing, writing, doing acting/improv, and work as a programmer (but mostly have worked on R&D teams). do you want to trade convergent/divergent thinking tips? My programming colleagues are always telling me how to streamline code, remove unused bits, make better class names... and I'm all... but I keep inventing algorithms is that not enough?

Anyway totally willing to be part of a imaginative/practical HNers coaching group!

Not at all.

A few months ago I started being extremely pragmatic in everyday life (even against my will which is usually not like that). Things like, say no if you want to say no, answer emails immediately with a sentence at most, find the fastest way to get something done etc...

Now I have a lot of time on my hands to do whatever I want, that includes spending the day studying or pondering things which I believe greatly increased the potential of my imagination.

Find things that you like and do them, weed out everything else. If you can't shake some of those away, find the most practical way to get rid of them.

I think this is a major reason you often see such a stark personality split between cofounders—one being more freewheeling when generating ideas, and the other being deeply pragmatic.

I used to be the opposite. For a good part of my first 10 years as a programmer, I used to always go for the wildest and coolest solution, architecture, language, etc. Coupled with me being a good salesman (able to sell to management) it continuously led to a huge amount of frustration and struggle.

Once I learned being practical first and creative only when needed, now I feel quite happy and productive. Seems like the satisfaction of my customers is much better than the tech itself.

There is a saying from Zen Buddhism: "In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind, there are few".

Granted, the beginner is also going to go down a lot of dead-ends, but sometimes the expert won't get started on something which they have mistakenly ruled out as impossible.

The question is, what (mental) exercises could you do to get into the practicality equivalent of "beginner's mind"?

1. Devalue all your knowledge.

Over the years of mindfully watching myself,

having endless debates on what's important for creativity : being flexible or being organized,

having read the book on this topic called "making ideas happen",

I got to understand what we all know already

To do the best of our work, it requires


- Balance between creativity and organization

- Balance between being practical and being a mad scientist

- Working in routine and breaking that routine

- Having a laser focus on problem and staying away from the problem

I think constraints and pragmatism are requires aspects of creativity and imagination. You can’t have one without the other.

Peter Carey’s early novel Illywhacker [1] has a central character that is both practical and imaginative, and is a brilliant description of these two coexisting. Well worth a read.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illywhacker

Maybe I'm missing what you mean. Sometimes a flight of fancy is fine, eg while brainstorming or creating fiction!

But the world values grounded workable solutions to real problems too. Being practical is good for these.

I find myself exasperated when, given a practical and an impractical solution, some people turn their nose up at the former as uninteresting.

Maybe your vocabulary of archetypes is just limited? Do you read non-technical books regularly?

I think a lot of creativity (or lack of) can come down to routine. If you follow the same routine every day, doing the same things, you get in a rut. Breaking your routine can help to get your mind into a different frame which can unlock some creativity.

Practicality is key to successful creativity, look at Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. Many have dreamed of going to mars but only a very practical person like Elon can make it happen.

Solving problems within actual constraints may be the greatest creativity of all.

Yo if you can't solve a problem for now, then temporarily focus on other things. Even Einstein (or whoever that person be) once said that you can't solve problems in the same headspace you've came up with them.

In my experience working with and having relationships with many practical/pragmatic/realist people, i would say yes - but...

Im too much of a dreamer/imaginary-driven, and i need these types to keep me focused.

One can be a level headed person and can be completely outrageous when coming up with ideas. I think both of them are not interwined, but it could be if you think it is, like a paradox.

One immediate example that springs to my mind is Albert Einstein. You could say that his ideas are outrageous that space and time are same and they are bent etc. Even people (like the Nazis) publicly called it outrageous and blasphemy. But if you think about his ideas, he clearly followed through with a rigourous mathematical proof which I think might be indicative of height of level headedness. In fact, if you skim through his process of explaining relativity to general public through his book [0], you cannot distinguish when he is being level headed and when he suddenly jumps into a bizarre thought experiment.

[0] - https://archive.org/details/cu31924011804774/page/n10

Lots of great advice here. Just wanted to add that, for me at least, I’m way more creative when I’m on a team than I am by myself. So maybe think about what contexts you thrive in.

In my experience probably yes. But keep in mind everybody things they are creative. And a lot of smart people effectively create things by borrowing ideas in a team setting.

Yes, if the logic goes unchecked.

I am, by and large, extremely, almost obsessively, practical and rational. Decisions pretty much always happen in a conditionally-formatted spreadsheet. It is my default.

That being said, my imagination can be very vivid and therapeutic.

Abstract painting, making music, writing ideas for potential tv shows, designing furniture, and my goofy sense of humor all result in some completely crazy ideas. Over time, I've learned to give myself more space to be creative. It's actually enabled me to be more practical because all that linear thinking now has a pressure-release outlet.

I think it makes sense. If you are a practical person, pair up with a creative person, your skills will complement each other.

I recommend daydreaming as if your goal is a good sci fi treatment of the idea.

I believe that constraints breed creative solutions.

Smoke a joint!



PS Life's short

I love you

... or drop acid! Just mind your set and setting.

And whatever you do, don't share ideas with colleagues until you've sobered up.

Nobody's stupid because they're not sure about something. It's totally cool to ask for help or opinions when you're thinking through a hard problem.

To answer your question you should understand what creativity and practicality mean in your context. I would generally think that being practical and creative aren't at odds with each other.

When working through a problem for work I tend to err on the side of practicality. We could be coming up with a new way to do data transformations, building out distributed tracing tools, or trying a new way of scaffolding our projects. Each of those solve a real problem and have practical implications. They also require creative thinking to imagine and design new tools and workflows.

These projects are practical in the sense that they need to solve an actual problem (e.g. deliver a net benefit to customer UX or development velocity). Contrary to how they sound, they often aren't obvious projects to take on or straight-forward solutions. It usually required days or weeks of lateral thinking to cook up one of these. In this context, creative thinking complimented practical thinking and produced a better result than one of those modes taken in isolation.

Sometimes it's helpful to circle around the problem you think you want to solve to better understand what your actual problem is.

Be careful reading other's ideas since it will affect the way in which you see the problem. Your view of the problem may be skewed after reading other information. OTOH, it's common that you can piggyback on existing ideas (see taco bell/duct tape programming).

There are lots of good resources on this subject: John Cleese talk linked elsewhere - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y70nbDJI5Uk

Rich Hickey Hammock Driven Development is a more direct application to software development.- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f84n5oFoZBc

Another good Alan Kay talk from YC - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id1WShzzMCQ

A Mind for Numbers

How to Solve It

Psychology of Intelligence Analysis is interesting too but less applicable (eschewing the Einstellung effect) - https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intellig...

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