Pattern recognition and other symptoms of creativity

Privately, someone mocked me for suggesting that b-schools can teach cultural literacy or the creativity needed to use this literacy in the branding and marketing world. (He was responding to my post of a couple of days ago.)

He must be wrong about cultural literacy. This is like any body of knowledge, especially when we strip away the "barriers to entry" created by those who confuse literacy and cool. 

But, who knows, he could be right about the creativity question. Maybe this can’t be taught. As a small contribution, to this debate, I suggest that we map some of the characterisitics of creativity. This might help us decide which of the key characteristics are teachable and which qualify as idiosyncratic and incapable of curricular development.

Let’s look at the moment of revelation, the moment when we know we have a new idea. In the collective case, we can feel the group begin to vibrate. This was evident yesterday at the Sterling Rice sessions. As the group begin to work through the possibilities and narrow in on one particular idea, people tend to become more animated, they sit forward, their hands fly in the air, eyes widen, and so on. There is a thrill of the chase in the air.  (Of course, there is always someone who insists on premature closure. I think they think they are being decisive, but by "leaping to a conclusion" they force the issue and kill the idea.)

We the group know we have a new idea before we actually know what it is. In the post in question, I called this the Svaha moment, after the Swahili term for the moment between thunder and lightening.

What about the moment when we are generating ideas on our own? In my experience, there is a moment of commotion when ideas begin to assemble and interact. Sometimes this feels like a collision, sometimes a clamor.

Then there is the moment of formation.  I know I have a new idea but not yet what it is.  This takes a Svaha transition.  Almost always this is a sense of the new idea moving upwards. It only takes a couple of seconds and eventually the new ideas breaks what can only be called the surface of consciousness. Now I have it form and substance.

So there is clamor, then formation, then movement, then surfacing.

I know these are not symptoms of creativity for everyone. I have a friend who says she gets goose bumps in the Svaha moment. And I guess there must be some people for whom ideas don’t emerge, or arrive, or manifest themselves. They just are. One moment you don’t have them. Then you do. No transition.

It is, I think, remotely possible that there are people who have a steady stream of ideas rushing like an underground water way just beneath the surface of consciounsess. All they need is a clearer sense of the symptoms to tap the stream. Anyhow, that’s what I’m hoping.

Please, could I hear from people on the sensations of creativity. What, precisely, is your moment of revelation?

8 thoughts on “Pattern recognition and other symptoms of creativity

  1. Ken King | King Marketing

    My teammates in the Queen’s execMBA program used to mock me lovingly (I choose to believe it was lovingly anyway) for getting squinty-eyed just before verbalizing my ideas. The part they couldn’t see was the fidgeting of my legs, sort of a physical effort to will the idea into existence. In private the fidgeting can be a full-body affair and often leads to pacing (which drives my wife crazy).

    BTW, I am really intrigued by the existence of the word “svaha”, it makes me wonder: how many other languages have a word for this phenomenon?

  2. Peter

    In my personal experience, Grant, there is definitely a period when I know I have an idea (and even know that it will be a damn good idea), but don’t yet know what it is. You could consider this period a form of maternity, between the time of knowing you are pregnant, but not yet knowing the gender of the baby.

    However, for me, personally, this transition can take a very long time. Last weekend, I just put flesh in a conference paper to an idea that has been in this svaha phase for almost 2 years. It was only this weekend, when I sat down to write the idea for perhaps the 5th time, that I finally was able to articulate it. But I recall exactly the moment when I knew the idea was there, 2 years ago, which was while reading a book on a totally unrelated topic, and which I suddenly realized was relevant to my problem (the problem was in computer science, the book on the anthropology of art).

    In another case, I wrote a paper in 2001 which articulated an idea that I’d had vaguely in 1979, and which I’d looked at on and off in the interim. But in that case I wasn’t engaged full-time in the area, so perhaps the idea would have been born sooner if I’d focused more attention on it.

    Regarding ideas with others: I’ve worked with about 3 people in my life with whom I have sufficient sympathy and sufficient distance that we spark great ideas in conversation together. Too much sympathy means you’ll just agree with each other, like talking to yourself, sparking no new ideas at all. Too much distance means you’ll talk past each other, or worse, spark disagreement rather than ideas. There has to be a subtle blend of both sympathy and distance. It is very rare, IME, to find such people. Finding them and working with them in brainstorm sessions is pure bliss.

  3. JohnO

    I definitely know when I have an idea and have the same problem articulating it. It feels like a lump in my throat, or, my head is totally full. If it comes out, it comes out fast: hopefully there is someone, paper, or a keyboard near that can receive it. Sometimes I’ll lose the idea too, nothing ends up coming out.

  4. Grant

    Ken, yes, pacing is key. Motor skills in the aid of thinking. Or perhaps its like conducting oneself…like Glen Gould. Squinting, that’s interesting. Is that the gaze turning inwards, by any chance. I like it when people go sightless, as if looking a long way off. Thanks, Grant

    Peter, yes, there is that sweet spot between too much in common and too little. But that in between point can be astonishingly productive. That’s interesting, really lone gestation periods. Now Svaha fails us as a metaphor and even “gestation” is too little. Thanks, Grant

    JohnO, yes, speed of capture is a problem, I want a blackboard but I never seem to have one near by, so it’s pen and paper. But it is as if the idea is dropping by or passing through and we either record it or lose it. Thanks, Grant
    p.s., somewhere on TV recently I saw black board done in glass that looked pretty splendid.

  5. Peter

    Re-reading your post, Grant, I notice you said that Svaha is the word for “the moment between thunder and lightning”. But light travels faster than sound, so it is the lightning that we normally perceive first, not the thunder.

    But I wonder if your slip was not revealing of something deeper here: the idea you’re presenting is that we know that we know something, but we don’t yet know what it is we know, as Secretary Rumsfeld might say. We realise or intuit the presence of some phenomenon before we know what the phenomenon is. Thunder is an effect of lightning, so perhaps it is natural that we’d imagine that we would perceive the thunder first. But in fact we perceive the actual phemonenon of lightning first (unless we happen not to be looking in its direction).

    So, you may have been unconsciously thinking about this in time-reverse mode, as if we usually perceived the thunder first, and only then the lightning, ie, as if an effect could preceed a cause.

    But such a time-reversed view is in keeping with, for example, millenarian ideas, religious ideas that we are at the end-times. The various omens used to predict (eg) the Second Coming (of Jesus of Nazarath) are often considered by believers as effects, rather than causes, since the Second Coming itself is the cause. Although it may seem strange for me to say this in the same breath, scenario forecasters adopt a similar perspective in identifying omens and signs: a trend is identified by effects (small omens, signs) that have a deeper underlying cause (the trend), but these effects are usually perceived much earlier than is their true cause. We hear the thunder before we see the lightning, in other words.

    Much to think about here. Thanks.

  6. Tom Guarriello

    I, too, am a pacer-thinker. When I’m having a conversation an an idea comes upon me (that’s the experience, of having ideas possess me) I spring up from my chair and start pacing around…if there’s something large to draw (well, actually scribble) on at that moment, that’s good, ’cause I want to depict the idea both in gestures (hey, I’m Italian) and in lines. As the idea unfolds (I’m an extravert, so thinking out loud is how I work out ideas), if I find myself making connections between scribble elements, then I know I’m really on to something.

    As to your original question about teaching cultural literacy/creativity, I believe the answer to be “yes.” Will everyone who studies creativity become a South Park originator? Of course not. But, not every piano student becomes Mozart, either; most just learn to play OK piano. OK piano’s a lot better than no piano, for my money.

  7. Matthew Baya

    In the post in question, I called this the Svaha moment, after the Swahili term for the moment between thunder and lightening.

    I’m curious where you learned about the word svaha and this definition. I ask because I’ve been trying to find a citable source for that very same definition of the word ever since I learned of it at Antioch College in the late 80’s. I run a web hosting business Svaha LLC ( and at the beginning I too thought it was a swahili word. However a few years later I met someone who spoke swahili and he said that it was not actually a swahili word.

    I’ll spare the details but I’ve been searching for where this word came from for many years now and I’ve detailed highlights of this search on our website at

    So I’d love to know where you learned of this word, I figure eventually someone might be able to lead to me a definitive source.

    Manager of Svaha.Com

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