Book Summary: How to fly a horse

Myths and patterns of innovation

Florian Sauter

10 minute read

The book and why you should read it

Before diving into the content of this book, let me tell you one thing: This is one of the rare books that I would recommend anyone to read at full length, just because it’s so well written and contains so many nice anectodes that it is impossible to get across the whole message in a summary. So make sure to get you own copy at Amazon.

Nevertheless I want to highlight some of the points that I liked from this book titled with a bit of an odd name: “How to fly a horse”.

In short, the book has one key take away: Contrary to popular belief, there is no such things as magic moments of insight, special genius, inspiration, or anything like that involved in invention and creation of something new. It all boils down to hard work that anyone is capable of being a creator.

So that’s what I thought: let’s get going and create this summary!

The Creativity Myth

The book provides a bunch of great examples of myths and legends about creation that are commonly believed. The most prominent one being the story behind Mozart’s creative technique and how he magically envisions whole shymphonies in his mind, ending up with just writing them down once - and ready is the next masterpiece. This sounds much like how we envision a taltented genius to work - spending all day with idleness and waiting for the one spark of inspiration that will somehow magically create something new.

It turns out though that all these stories are false. They are just projections of people who seek to put glamour and mystery into the process and the person. In reality, and this is agreed upon by historians who have investigated the case, it turns out that Mozart’s creative technique looked totally different: He did not compose in his mind; he always needed a piano. He definitely was very talented, but his compositions were endless iterations, revision, combinations of his knowledge on theory and craft and mainly one thing: very hard work.

Kevin explains why the creativity myth does not die easily:

“It dulls the luster to think that every elegant equation, beautiful painting, and brilliant machine is born of effort and error, the progeny of false starts and failures, and that each maker is as flawed, small and mortal as the rest of us. It is seductive to conclude that great innovation is delivered to us by miracle via genius. And so the myth.”

“The creativity myth implies that few people can be creative, that any successful creator will experience dramatic flashes of insight, and that creating is more like magic than work. A rare few have what it takes, and for them it comes easy. Anybody else’s creative efforts are doomed.”

The book sets out to proof this myth wrong and tells us that creating is not magic, but hard work and anyone can do it.

Creating is ordinary

The book goes back 200,000 years to the point when the first humans appeared that looked like us today. It seems like the first 150,000 years of our existence, humans did not create anything new at all. However, around 50,000 years ago this suddenly changed. It is not known what the trigger for this change was, but it is very clear that humans were suddenly striving to improve things beyond their status quo. Kevin takes this as a proof point that the ability to create is in all of us since 50,000 years ago. This makes creation an ordinary thing that our ancestors for over a thousend generations have practices - and upon their innovation steps we are building all of our today’s tools.

So how does creation happen?

“The answer lies in the stories of people who have created things. Stories of creation follow a path.”

The book expolres the path of creation for many examples and concludes with one key pattern:

“Work is the soul of creation.”

It points to the fact that everyone has the ability to create, but there is a myriad of reasons people find to not create, including that “it is not easy”, “I have not time” or many variances of “I can’t”.

“Creation is not a moment of inspiration but a lifetime of endurance. (..) It is early mornings and lite nights: long hours doing work that will likely fail or be deleted or erased - a process without progress that must be repeated daily for years. Beginning is hard, but continuing is harder.”

“The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit”.

Thinking is like walking

The book states that before we can know how to create, we have to know how to think. For thinking, though, everyone seems to use the same process, as everyone walk with the same process.

“There is no ‘creative thinking’ just as there is no ‘creative walking’. Creation is a result - a place thinking may lead us. Before we can know how to create, we must know how to think.”

So how should we think?

One thing to keep in mihd when thinking an creating is, that old ideas tend to obstruct new ones. Kevin explains that is is not enough to become an expert in a field. This is only the first step. The second step is a surprising one: it’s becoming a beginner.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilties, but in the expert’s there are few.”

In general, minds do not leap when they think. The pattern that can be observed is more that we begin thinking with something familiar, evaluate it, solve any problems with it and then repeat the whole procedure over and over again.

And what about incubation? Don’t we have this picture in mind that we need to sleep over a problem, just to get the magic spark of a solution quickly after? Kevin states that “most researchers now regard incubation as a folk psychology - a popular belief but wrong.”

Looking fore more patterns, the act of creation often starts with two questions:

  • Why doesn’t if work?
  • What should I change to make it work?

Another interesting finding is about how well brainstorming as a technique works for creation. And the conclusion is equally surprising: Research seems to have the clear view that the “best way to create is to work alone and evaluate solutions as they occur” - so it’s about time to rethink the classical brainstorming sessions for idea creation, which seem to have sub-par results according to Kevin’s book.

Expect Adversity

The book shows a bunch of historic examples that broguth innovators into real trouble. Kevin explains that it’s part of human nature to initially say no to the new.

“If your idea succeeds, everybody says you’re persistent. If is doesn’t succeed, your’re subborn.”

Kevin prepares everyone who is about to invent something new to prepare for a lot of rejection.

“Creators must expect rejection. The only way to avoid rejection is to avoid making anyting new. Rejection is not a ticket to quit. It does not mean the work is bad.”

In that context, Kevin cites the Getzels-Jackson effect. In their study on school students in 1962 found out that the most creative students tended to have a lower IQ than the least creative students. The highly creative children tended to be funnier, more playful and less predictable in their work than their less creative couterparts. That itself does not sound like a surprise. The surprise was the teachers: They liked the high-IQ children, while they did not like the creative children as much. Which was a surprise especially because the lower IQ children did equally well in terms of academic results. So the teachers where showing a bias towards the children that “performed as expected”.

“The Getzels-Jackson effect is not restricted to schools, and it persists into adulthood. Decision makers and authority figures in business, science, and government all say they value creation, but when tested, they do not value creators.

How we see the world

The book tells us that we all have our own, very prominent biases of how we see the world. It goes as far as to tell that our impression that the world we inhabit was a “stable, objective universe” and that “what we perceive is real” is just something we make up for ourselves to feel “sane enough (..) to get on with our lives”. While it is completely not true.

The effect has been proven in many historical cases where evidence was striking, but nobody accepted the inconvenient truths. One of the effects that lets us not see the obvious is called “inattentional blindness”:

“Inattentional blindness: “Something that we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. The brain just edits it out; it’s like a blind spot. If you look directly at it you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. It relies on people’s natural predisposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting or can’t explain.”

The book suggests to make sure we are never too certain about a specific thing, especially if we want to be creative:

“Confidence is belief in yourself. Certainty is belief in your beliefs. Confidence is a bridge. Certainty is a barricade. (…) Make an enemy of certainty and befried doubt. When you can change your mind, you can change anything.”

On rewards an motivation

There are numerous reasons that have been found to be drivers for creating: amongst others there is the desire for mastery, immortality, money, or recognition.

A big number of studies have been conducted about how rewards influence the creativity and performance of people. This is especially relevant in a business context where bonus payments are frequently found and heavily disputed as harming the instrinsic motivation of the staff and doing more harm than good.

The book finds:

“The relationship between reward and motivation is not as simple as ‘rewards reduce performance’. There are more than a hundred studies [on this topic]. They reach no consensus. Some find that rewards help, some find that they hurt; some find that they make no difference.” (..) “Rewards are only a problem when open-minded thinking is required.”

Creating Creative Organizations

The final chapters of the book are putting creation and creativity in the bigger context of an organization rather than just focusing on individual creation. Kevin explicitly defines organizations not as “groups of people”, but as “groups of people interacting”.

The key question of the chapter is: “If creating is best done alone by people with intrinsic motovation and free choice, how do creative teams work? How can anyone build an organization that creates?”

One success factor, according to Kevin, is to set the manager’s mind into the right mode. History shows that the best innovators are not necessarily the best innovation managers. Too often there can be found examples of managers that do not appreciate creative ideas - while there was a good trick to apply: Instead of ridiculing crazy ideas or explainig why something would not work, the simple phrase of “Show me.” as a reply to a crazy idea might lead a long way.

So it’s much about appreciating the unpoular and the awkward:

“[Truth-tellers] They may not be popular. The truth is often awkward and unwelcome, and so are the people who tell it. As we have seen in our discussion of rejection, confrontations about ideas are hardwired into human nature. The hallmark of a creative organization is that it is much more receptive to new thinking than the world in general.”

The book also gives advice on how groups of people can be creative: The focus of any group conversation should always be to identify and solve creative problems. But “the detailed creative work is still done alone”.

The meeting culture of a company seems to be a strong indicator of its capability to create:

“The most creative organizations prioritize rituals of doing; the last creative organizations prioritize rituals of saying, the most common of which is he meeting. ‘Meeting’ is an euphemisms for ‘talking’; therefore, meetings are an alternative to work. (…) the more creative an organization is, the fewer internal meetings it tends to have, and the fewer people tend to be at those meetings.”

Next steps

As I said before: I can really recommend reading this at full length. Get your copy on Amazon.