A few years ago my wife, in her mid-50s, decided to go to law school. After only a few months, we started noticing that legal issues seemed to pop up constantly on the evening news. Slowly (actually that adverb applies more to me than her) we began to realize that the law permeates all aspects of American life. It’s everywhere. Even when you think you are free of it, it’s lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce.
I’m beginning to think the same is true about innovation and creativity. Recently I ran across a book about memory. I am very interested in memory, partly because my wife (who remembers everything that ever happened to her since age 3) claims I don’t have any, and partly because, as a student of China, I’ve spent most of my life memorizing (and promptly forgetting) Chinese characters. Surely, I thought, memory doesn’t have anything to do with innovation and creativity. Wrong again. On the contrary, according to Joshua Foer (in Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything), memory and innovation are two sides of the same coin. Among other things, he notes that the Latin term inventio has given rise in modern English to both inventory and invention: “In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment” (203). To put it another way, “If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you’ll be at coming up with new ideas” (203).
All that makes perfect sense to me, because I’m a historian who writes about how cumulative cultural memory has given rise to endless cycles of innovation and creativity over time. The fact that Chinese civilization has been kicking around for several thousand years has given them a lot of inventory to draw from. What is most fascinating—and mysterious—to me is that the whole process is wrapped up in a magic box of paradox. The new requires the old, and the old requires the new. There must be a law about that. Let me ask my wife. She’ll remember.