Intellectual Phase Transitions

In physics, a phase transition happens when a substance changes form. 

In your own life, they occur when you take ice out of the refrigerator, put it in a glass, and watch it turn into water. None of the original molecules change, but they turn into a new structure due to the temperature difference. The way ice becomes water echoes the words of French chemist Antoine Lavoisier who said: “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.”

Creativity is the same way. As a writer, you can transform existing ideas into epiphanies by combining other people’s ideas. That’s what happened with my What the Hell is Going On essay which has now been read more than 150,000 times. I still remember sitting in a Santa Monica coffee shop when I committed to writing a summary of Martin Gurri’s book, Revolt of the Public. I started by compiling my favorite quotes from the book. As I did, I saw how they connected to ideas from people like Marshall McLuhan, Jordan Greenhall, and Peter Thiel. The project changed shape. Instead of writing a summary of the book, I planned to synthesize all their ideas. By combining their ideas, I generated my own epiphanies until I discovered a narrative that only I could write.

That originality wasn’t something I started with. It was an emergent property of studying other people’s ideas — an intellectual phase transition. Writing helped me digest the ideas and as I did, they began to change form. I started by writing a book summary but ended up with a thesis about how the current changes to commerce, education, and politics all result from the shift from information scarcity to information abundance. 

All creativity is inspired by other people’s ideas. The faster you embrace that, the more successful you can be as a creative. As Brain Pickings author Maria Popova once said: “Something we all understand on a deep intuitive level, but our creative egos sort of don’t really want to accept: And that is the idea that creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill, and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.”

Consciously or unconsciously, all ideas are second-hand. You don’t need original ideas to start writing because novelty can emerge from other people’s thinking. If you don’t know where to start writing, start with a long list of other people’s ideas. Then, change their substance by blending them all together. Aim to find further connections between ideas and add them to your master list. Through combination and recombination, you will generate your own intellectual phase transitions.

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