Murray Gell-Man’s Top Lessons on Developing Creative Thinking Skills

Is there are a better way to learn about high-quality mind other than from the great minds themselves? Perhaps not. That’s why I watched a video from Google Tech Talks entitled On Getting Creative Ideas. It’s a lecture that features Murray Gell-Man who won Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 for proposing a fundamental particle called quark. Since theoretical physics is one of my interests (though I’m just an amateur), I know Gell-Man’s reputation well. He is one of the greatest minds currently live and learning from him about developing creative thinking skills is a too good opportunity to pass.

I learned a lot from the video. Despite being 78 years old, he explained his ideas clearly and sharply. The lecture gives me insights on how people with breakthrough ideas like him work. I recommend you to watch the video yourself, but here are the top lessons I learned:

  • There are three stages to getting creative ideas.
    The three stages are:
    1. Saturation: Filling our mind with the problems.
    2. Incubation: Conscious mind seems to no longer work here.
    3. Illumination: Ideas suddenly turn up. It often happens when we are doing something unrelated to the problems.
    A fourth stage can be added: verification. Here we verify that the ideas do work in reality.
  • Often there is no reason for conventional wisdom. It’s just something people tell one another.
  • We should always ask why not, but we should also understand that there is usually a very good reason why not.
  • Problem formulation is usually much more important than problem solving.
    In many cases, it’s also more difficult. To formulate problems, we must ask: what are the real requirements? What are the real conditions the solution must satisfy? What rules are we allowed to violate?
    One place where problems are formulated for us is school. In fact, it’s almost the only place in the world where problems are formulated for us.
  • To get creative ideas, take an existing idea and build on it. Take it more seriously than its original proponent did and use it for some other purposes.
    Einstein did it for his theories. Special relativity for instance, was built on the idea of a physicist named Lorentz. Einstein took Lorentz’s idea more seriously and further than Lorentz himself did.
  • In everyday life, one way to be creative is using the things around us beyond what they are originally purposed.
  • When we try to solve problems we should try to use something random in addition to logical, rational, and reasonable inputs to our thinking.
    The randomness helps us get out of the “shallow holes” (situations where we get good but not great ideas) so that we can eventually reach the bottom of a “deep hole” (situation where we get great ideas).
    Here is an example of randomness: look at the last noun of today newspaper’s front page and use it to solve your problem.

Of course, there are examples and other materials in the video I do not mention here. Furthermore, since everyone’s situation is different, what you learn from the video might be different from me. So, again, you’d better watch the video yourself.

If you have a chance, you might also want to read my post 9 Lessons Richard Feynman Taught Us About Creativity. It highlights creativity lessons from Richard Feynman – another great mind in physics.

This article is part of May 2008 theme: Mind


  1. Donald, you reversed incubation and saturation. That is, the descriptions are in the right order, but stage 1 description is of “saturation” not of “incubation” and vice versus.

    Other than that, thanks for the link.

  2. Doug,
    I’ve fixed the error. Thanks for letting me know about this, I appreciate it.

  3. Your review enticed me to watch it and, yes, it’s really good.
    Thanks for the video and review, Donald.

  4. Luciano,
    I’m glad you like it. It’s always wonderful to learn from the great minds.

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