Supercharge Your Creativity With “Idea Protoplasm”

Creativity isn’t just for ‘creatives’. We all need it. “What do I do with my life?” — we all have to create our own solutions, our own answers to that question. At work, with your friends and family, in almost everything you do, you are constantly coming up with solutions big and small that are uniquely you. That’s being creative. Saying “I’m not creative” is almost like saying “I don’t breathe.”

There are times, however, when we need to be creative on demand. When I need to create something right now: a résumé, an artwork, a business plan, a better way to approach a challenge with my significant other. So where to begin?

There is this notion that ‘creativity’ is about creating something out of nothing. So we just stare at that blank screen, that blank canvas, that blank spreadsheet, or blank wall, waiting for inspiration to magically well up out of nothingness. Maybe that works for some people, but it has never worked very well for me.


Theologians in the Middle Ages had the idea that the Christian God created everything “ex nihilo” — Latin for “out of nothing.” And only the Christian God can do that. Well, that leaves me out! In this view, creating something out of nothing is not something we humans can do!

The modern theory of how the Cosmos came into being is of course the Big Bang, where the entire Cosmos came into being all at once. Not out of ‘nothing’ — apparently the entire Cosmos started out the size of a peach.

But, according to this theory, the Cosmos has been constantly rearranging the same mass/energy since then. That is, the Cosmos is constantly rearranging itself, but it’s always the same underlying “stuff”. Same mass/energy, new arrangement every nanosecond — eon after eon.

It’s a similar story for living things. Everything from fungi to trees to human beings is made from the same underlying organic building blocks. Apparently human DNA is 60% similar to the DNA of bananas. And we’re both built of the same organic stuff — proteins, DNA, etc.

And what happens when we eat a banana? We break it down into its organic building blocks and use them to fuel and rebuild our human body machine. And when animals die (including us) — those same organic building blocks are reused by yet other organisms.

The word “protoplasm” comes from the Greek words “protos” = “first, and “plasma” = “something made”. Today the word ‘protoplasm’ is used specifically for a kind of goo inside every cell. But originally it referred to the ‘primary stuff’ from which living things are built, and that’s the sense I’m going to use.

So how in the world does this ancient idea of ‘protoplasm’ help me be creative today? Well, like this: Every living thing is built by rearranging the existing organic ‘protoplasm’. The underlying building blocks from which physical life is constructed remain the same, whether you’re talking about a banana or a human. What makes a banana different from a human is how those ‘protoplasm’ building blocks are arranged. Those arrangements are very different, but the building blocks are the same. And that’s the key to supercharging your creativity.

Let’s use Einstein as an example. In 1905 he published his landmark paper on “Special Relativity”, which had to do with how the speed of light is constant for all observers, and all that strange time dilation stuff. Einstein did not pull those ideas out of thin air. Others were working along the same lines. Minkowski, Poincairé, and Lorenz were eerily close to Special Relativity — Einstein was the one who put it all together and crossed the finish line. This in no way diminishes his accomplishment. But in the Olympics, sometimes the difference between the Gold Medalist in swimming who is featured on breakfast cereal boxes and makes millions, vs. the Silver Medalist that no one has heard of who ends up teaching swimming at the YMCA can be a fraction of a second. Einstein won that race, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t other physicists in the race, with whom he shared ideas. He acknowledged as much. My point is that Einstein did not come up with his ideas in a vacuum.

Or Picasso. He didn’t invent paint. Or cubes. Those were existing ideas that have been around forever.

Einstein and Picasso were geniuses, so they were able to take existing ideas and re-arrange them in fantastic new ways that changed the world. But you and I don’t need genius creativity. Mere mortal creativity is all we need to radically change our own lives! So how might that work?

Increase your Inputs

In the same way that we need food such as bananas to fuel our bodies, we need to be consuming new ideas to fuel our minds. And any nutritionist will tell you that we need a variety of foods to be healthy.

Here’s one way to approach that. There’s a system of note-taking called Zettelkasten that emphasizes connecting ideas together. One approach for making those connections is the “Zettlekasten Compass“:


In Zettlekasten this is a method of connecting individual ideas. But we can also use it for broad subject areas. Let’s use “Capitalism”…

  • North: where did Capitalism come from? Humans have been wheeling and dealing since the invention of the wheel. When was money invented? How has the “Art of the Deal” evolved over the millennia?
  • East: what is similar to Capitalism? How about “Distributism” — something like capitalism but without big corporations. In fact, the legal entity “corporation” developed in the 19th century. What did Capitalism look like before then?
  • West: what is the opposite of Capitalism? One example would be “Marxism.” A method I’ve found helpful to better understand my own position is to read the polar opposite. So I made a point of reading Karl Marx Das Kapital — quite enlightening. Don’t waste your time on weak material by the opposite side, find the most articulate and thoughtful representative and read them. Not to change your mind, but to expand it  to understand your own position better.
  • South: What can Capitalism lead to? No system is perfect — how might Capitalism be improved? In fact, we’re modifying it all the time with more laws and regulations for commerce.

The idea is to stretch yourself and push the boundaries of what you normally read. For idea nutrition, it’s better to read ten different books than the same book ten times — or books that are so similar they amount to reading the same book over and over.

Idea Salad

Idea salads can be very nutritious for your mind! The idea of an idea salad is to toss multiple seemingly unrelated ideas into the bowl and see what happens. Pick some word that’s popular — “quantum” seems to show up a lot. So, how about “Quantum Volleyball?” or “Quantum Wine Tasting?” Of course this generates lots of fun nonsense. But sometimes seed ideas emerge. And even when they don’t, this is great practice for increasing your mental flexibility. Think of it as “mind yoga.”

Looking over news headlines this morning, I’m coming up with “AI Weight Loss,” “COVID Stock Portfolio” and “Bitcoin Toxic Waste.” All of which get my imagination fired up!

Avoiding Plagiarism

Plagiarism is always a potential problem. But not if your new idea arrangement has inputs from enough sources, and if you’ve reworked those ideas in your own unique style. In many areas, plagiarism doesn’t matter: do you need to figure out how to make your significant relationship better? No one cares where you get your insights.

Everyone has a belly button — a connection to the past. That includes Einstein and Picasso. But the creative greats of yesteryear reworked their inputs to the extent that their influences aren’t really relevant. If you take your many inputs, and weave and rework them to be yours, that’s not plagiarism. Of course there will still be echoes of your idea ancestors — just like you’ve inherited the DNA and physical features of your ancestors. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that people get into trouble with plagiarism when they don’t make ideas their own, when they don’t rework enough sources into their own voice.

One of the things that sets humans apart from animals is the degree to which we can think and come up with unique solutions. Most animals and plants are relatively “hard-wired” for their particular environment and survival strategy. Polar bears have thick coats. Tigers have extraordinary speed and strength. But humans? In terms of our physical capabilities, we’re rather average at best. Many animals can run faster and jump higher than we can. But what we DO have going for us is a very general-purpose body, and a creative mind that keeps coming up with new ways to use it. We can run passably fast, climb trees passably well, and swim passably well. And we have two very general-purpose hands, and we stand on two legs so we can always use them. What other animal can survive anywhere from the Arctic to the tropics? (Cockroaches probably.)

We aren’t built to do things just one way. We are built to rearrange what is already around us, using our hands and our minds. And in the realm of ideas, all you need is your mind!

We don’t need the extraordinary creativity of Einstein or Picasso. We only need the creativity available to all of us mere mortals. That’s enough. You don’t have to be an Olympic-class runner to enjoy running, get better at it, and run when you need to.

If we think ideas are scarce, then of course they are. If we think of ideas as plentiful, then of course they are. And they’re plentiful because we swim in an ocean of micro ideas — idea protoplasm — that we can connect together into our own unique creations.

This article first appeared on SubStack.

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