How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery

Drawing on examples from Mozart to the Muppets, MIT tech pioneer and serial entrepreneur Kevin Ashton explores the history of creativity, providing practical advice to harness your own creative fire.

There’s a great chapter on the Wright Brothers and how their progress was a succession of small discoveries and interests over their lifetime that influenced the creation of the first flying machine (rather than a “sudden” moment of inspiration).

The writing is concise, his points counterintuitive and the stories are fresh and illustrative. I keep going back to the book for inspiration and a kick in the butt when the going gets tough. If any part of your life or work is creative — or you want it to be —  you’ll find it well worth the read.

Here are a few quotes and takeaways that I hope will inspire you to grab a copy of the book.

  1. Great creators know that the best step forward is often a step back—to scrutinize, analyze, and assess, to find faults and flaws, to challenge and to change. You cannot escape a maze if you only move forward. Sometimes the path ahead is behind.
  2. Creation is incremental. There’s no magic in it. It is not fun, romantic, or, most of the time, even interesting. If we want to create, we must, in the words of Paul Gallico, open our veins and bleed.
  3. The best way to create is to work alone and evaluate solutions as they occur. The worst way to create is to work in large groups and defer criticism.
  4. Experts do not think less. They think more efficiently. The practiced brain eliminates poor solutions so quickly that they barely reach the attention of the conscious mind.
  5. Make an enemy of certainty and befriend doubt. When you can change your mind, you can change anything.
  6. “Meeting” is a euphemism for “talking”; therefore, meetings are an alternative to work. Despite this, the average office worker attends six hour-long meetings a week, almost a full working day.

Big ideas from the book:

1. No idea is original. The airplane, electricity, natural selection, calculus, black holes, radioactivity,  — just to name a few — were independently discovered by more than one person in history. Multiple discoveries are common because people all around the world are building off of previous generations in a step-like fashion, until one day they come to similar conclusions and make “original” discoveries.

How this applies to your life: Don’t let the myth of ‘creative genius’ intimidate you. Even the greatest ideas emerge more than once. Creativity can be achieved by anyone but requires a lot of tedious, mundane steps that go unseen to the public eye. Start with baby steps.

2. Foster Beginner’s Mind. In one study, 3 separate groups of kids, MBA’s, and engineers were asked to build a tower made of marshmallows with a 15 minute time limit. The MBA’s spent time planning, clashed egos, and spent only the last 1 minute actually building. The engineers were a little faster and delegated, but all took on “roles” in the group. The kids didn’t care about hierarchy, didn’t spend time planning, and started building immediately. The kids built the marshmallow tower the fastest. They didn’t let words and thoughts take the place of their actions (somehow we forget this as we grow up…).

How this applies to your life. It’s unlikely you will come to create anything great in a ‘company meeting’ where egos, personalities, and hierarchy mix together to achieve little. The solution? Approach problems with a beginner’s mind by taking action, planning less, and course-correcting along the way. Oh, and make sure to get some alone-time where you can execute by yourself.

3. “The trash is not failure, but foundation.” Every year Stephen King throws away about 300 pages of typed work — that’s over 60,000 words, straight into the trash if he feels the words aren’t right. We all have to start somewhere and it’s probably going to look bad, but no worse than the first starts of others.

How this applies to your life: Deleting, redoing, undoing, editing, and deleting some more is all part of the creative process. Accept it and treat each part of the process as a step towards the goal.

Two more quotes from the book I enjoyed:


Beginner’s mind and expertise sound like opposites, but they are not. Western philosophy has conditioned us to see things in opposing pairs—black and white, left and right, good and evil, yin and yang (as opposed to the original Chinese idea of yin-yang), beginner and expert—a paradigm called “dualism.” We do not have to see things this way. We can see them as connected, not opposed. Beginner’s mind is connected to, not opposite to, expertise because the greatest experts understand that they are working within the constraints of a paradigm and they know how those constraints arose. In science, for example, some constraints are the result of available tools and techniques.

There are no true beginners.

We start building paradigms as soon as we are born. We inherit some, we are taught some, and we infer some. When we first create, we are already David Foster Wallace’s fish, swimming in a sea of assumptions we have not yet noticed. The final step of expertise is the first step to beginner’s mind: knowing what you assume, why, and when to suspend your assumptions.


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