Skip to main content
Faculty Viewpoints

Modeling the Path Toward Creativity

Creative insight may appear to arrive in a flash, says Yale SOM economist Jonathan Feinstein, but the eureka moment typically emerges from a foundation built over years. Feinstein’s new book modeling creativity is itself the result of an early interest and decades of exploration.

Prof. Jonathan Feinstein in the classroom

Q: Creativity in Large-Scale Contexts is your second book exploring innovation and creativity. What is the aim of the book?

The book is the result of years of work to model creativity rigorously in order to show how ideas develop over time and how people influence each other. It offers a practical framework to guide creative work from a starting point where almost anything is possible through to delivering a finished project, whether that’s an idea, product, or work of art. Understanding this process is crucial for anyone undertaking creative endeavors or managing creativity and innovation.

Creative activities take time. As a manager, you can’t make the light bulb turn on and you can’t know when it’s going to happen. What you can do is provide the best conditions for it to happen.

Albert Einstein described several instances when he had a flash of insight. We love to celebrate eureka moments, but however compelling and memorable those stories are, they are half-truths; when we really dig into them, we find so many things happened earlier that made the insight possible. Einstein sometimes spent 10 years working on a problem before finding a solution. The flash was 10 years in the making.

Creative activities take time. As a manager, you can’t make the light bulb turn on and you can’t know when it’s going to happen. What you can do is provide the best conditions for it to happen. That means offering a vision that guides the work and ensuring the knowledge and skills are in place within the team so that eventually the light bulb does turn on.

Q: What does it mean to model creativity rigorously?

Modeling is a tool that’s associated with economics and operations research, and it’s a significant part of what I’m bringing to creativity research. Most people in the field are trained in psychology. The paradigms in psychology tend to channel researchers into studying creativity as a very short-term process—put people in a room and give them 15 minutes to generate an idea. That’s a caricature, but it’s not that far off. And that approach doesn’t let us understand how a team develops a product or a novelist writes a book.

From the beginning, developing a modeling structure for creativity was something I wanted to do. My first book, The Nature of Creative Development, looked at creativity qualitatively. Taking a more formal approach was the clear next step. I’ve been developing the modeling since around 2009.

The cover of Creativity in Large-Scale Contexts

I’m an inductive researcher. I looked at lots and lots of information, everything from empirical data to biographies. I looked at the processes that creative people from Virginia Woolf to technology engineers have used intuitively. Then I worked backwards to understand more generally what’s going on by developing a model.

I’m a big believer in modeling for the clarity that it brings. It’s a tool to see the flaws in our own thinking. And others can look at the model, test and challenge it, and apply it in different ways.

Modeling is a way to carry an idea forward. It’s going to generate predictions. Any team working on a creative project operates in a context, which we model as a network. We can see how individuals within the network navigate, based on their own experiences, to find creative ideas. Or we can change the properties of the network to see how different contexts might impact creative work. In a sense, it’s like competitive strategy—using the model, we can try to predict effective creative strategies.

Q: Why does creative work take time?

Here’s an example: In college Hans Krebs was fascinated when he learned about how the body extracts energy and nutrients from food. But he didn’t do anything—couldn’t do anything—about his interest until years later, while doing entirely different work, he was introduced to new laboratory techniques. He realized those techniques would let him study how the body processes nutrients.

Years after his initial interest, he had a high-level understanding—a guiding conception—that a path was now available to him. Creativity is putting things together in new ways. Krebs put biochemical questions together with laboratory techniques in ways that hadn’t been done previously. Moving from that guiding conception to making discoveries took more time, but he went on to win a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on key metabolic processes, including the Krebs cycle.

Q: What’s important about a guiding conception?

Once you have a guiding conception, you can dive into the thicket of possibilities, where there are millions of options, without getting entirely lost. Then as you narrow to a few promising possibilities, you establish some principles to evaluate whether those seed ideas are consistent with the guiding conception and worth developing.

Steve Jobs had very strict guiding principles around aesthetic design, simplicity, and elegance. Teams would come to him with ideas they thought were fine. He would say, there’s a million things wrong with it and here’s what they all are. Come back next week with the next round. He was very tough, but Apple’s success really goes back to his clearly articulated guiding principles for the qualities that Apple products have to embody.

That process—of finding a broad concept, then using guiding principles to evaluate the seeds and iterating until you end up with a great creative project—is the core of creative work.

Q: Would you talk about the arc of your career? You are an economist. Your early research focused on tax compliance. How did you come to do this work?

I credit the intellectual environment at Yale SOM for helping me find my way to the work on creativity and beyond to a larger project to develop mathematical models of life paths.

As an undergraduate, I had hazy ideas along the lines of what I’m now doing, but they didn’t fit naturally in any particular field, and I didn’t know how to develop the ideas. I went to MIT for graduate school in economics and pretty much did the standard stuff because that was the environment I was in.

In my dissertation, I worked on a better way to measure which crimes or regulatory violations are detected and which are not. I found someone in the research division of the Internal Revenue Service who was willing to let me and a friend of mine, also in the program, come in to do research without knowing what the results would be. As it turned out, the method I developed was very useful to the IRS. They still use it in measuring issues around tax reporting, compliance, and auditing. I also applied the approach to several other areas, including nuclear power safety regulation.

After that, as I began my career as a professor, I did a lot of reading on the history of economic thought, as well as philosophy, psychology, and sociology. I was accumulating information and knowledge without having quite crystalized my larger project.

Around that time Yale offered me a position. Before accepting, I wanted to be very clear that my project was something different and the school needed to be comfortable with that. I remember Sharon Oster’s exact words to me: “You are not a garden-variety economist, and we are not a garden-variety management school.”

Q: Your work has touched on quite a range of topics—aging, environmentalism, counterterrorism, immigration.

Yale SOM is a very good place to do boundary-crossing work. As Sharon noted, Yale SOM is about doing something a little different, so it’s important to have diverse thinking, diverse perspectives, and diverse work at the school.

I published several papers with Ed Kaplan, who is a good friend. His office is just down the hall from me. He is super fun and loves to talk about research ideas. We have a good rapport and are able to communicate well.

Q: Are those the qualities that make for effective collaboration on a creative project?

Openness of communication and good rapport are important. It’s also helpful for members of the team to be able to take on complementary roles and maybe hold different but probably overlapping perspectives.

We co-authored our best paper with Mohammad Fazel-Zarandi, then a postdoctoral associate. The paper proposed a new way to estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

I know for a fact that the existing methodology is flawed; it uses census data for something that census data isn’t appropriate for. That doesn’t prove that what we’re doing is correct, but we hoped it would spur discussion on developing a more accurate approach.

The paper got a lot of attention but not about the technique. It’s a very politically sensitive issue and our approach led to a considerably larger undocumented population than previously understood. So, while our estimate got a lot of attention there has not been as much dialogue as we would like to see about creating a better method for making the estimate.

It’s always better when research involves ongoing back-and-forth dialogue. That’s how we move forward.

Q: To circle back, you joined the faculty of Yale SOM in 1992 with a nascent idea…

The idea hadn’t crystalized, but I knew I was very interested in people’s lives. For instance, I taught an environmental economics class for a number of years. It wasn’t a part of the curriculum, but I read about John Muir. I read about Rachel Carson. I’ve always been interested in people with different points of view—people that have more radical ideas. I think developing and disseminating ideas is hard and doesn’t always get the recognition it should.

I was curious to understand how Muir became the environmentalist he became. How did Carson end up writing that amazing book, Silent Spring? Those questions were very interesting to me without having put my finger on exactly why.

What I wanted to do was right in front of me, but it was hard to put the pieces together.

Q: How did you start putting the pieces together?

I just started talking with people engaged in creative activities. In a way it’s a naïve approach, but it’s also an empirical approach that worked for me as a very inductive person.

I interviewed playwrights and filmmakers. I talked with people who had just gotten their doctorates in literature, neuroscience, and mathematics. We’d have conversations about their work and what they saw themselves doing.

I would type up transcripts. Then I’d read and reread the transcripts looking for insights. Working backwards from the transcripts helped me to understand that creativity was very much of an unfolding process that started with a general idea or even just an interest. Exploring the idea and gaining knowledge would gradually lead to more precise ideas. Those ideas led eventually to my first book on creativity.

Q: How did you develop the formal modeling?

I’ve been a computer programmer from the age of 12. It’s something that’s very natural to me. I grew up in Menlo Park, California. My father, who had been at Bell Laboratories, became the head of research for a company in Silicon Valley, so we moved to California in 1964. I loved growing up in that environment. My first job, right after high school, was programming at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

When I started to work on the modeling, I hadn’t done any programing in years but I realized that it would be a way to do some of what I wanted to do.

I ultimately want to develop a framework that lets us model individual life paths. I want the models to be rich enough to encompass the way people influence each other while also being able to see what is distinctive and original about any individual.

One of the great things about being a professor is having time to go a little further out and then come back around. I’ve moved back towards economics in the sense of creating more formal, mathematical modeling of the creative process.

My hope is that modeling people’s experiences in creative undertakings helps sharpen and improve our thinking around creativity. But, for my own work, it’s a step within a broader project. What I ultimately want to do is develop a framework that lets us model individual life paths. I want the models to be rich enough to encompass the way people influence each other while also being able to see what is distinctive and original about any individual.

Recently, after a conversation with a friend, I typed into Google, “Mathematical models of life paths.” You know what came back? Zero. Absolutely nothing. That doesn’t happen very often these days. There’s nobody who’s done it. That’s interesting.

I would characterize what I want to do as a very an ambitious project. Writing a third book in this series will be super meaningful to me. I’m a father. My children are important to me. Teaching is important to me. The San Francisco Giants are important to me. Lots of things are, but the most purposeful, driven activity of my life is to develop these ideas and put them out there.

Q: Is your interest in modeling life paths to see how people have an impact?

I’m hesitant to use the word impact. I think we get overly attached to outcomes. Every human being has a distinctive life path. Every person does something. They contribute in some way. They influence others.

Within any given field you will find influences circulating. For a few individuals, their works gets picked up broadly and recognized by the broader society, but many, many others are active and contributing to the ideas and developments of their field without getting noticed. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t very important.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it wonderful to want to have a lot of impact; people should have aspirations. But in my class on creativity and innovation, I really try to frame it as, “What’s a creative life path that will be meaningful for you?”

We’re always subject to both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. We have things we feel an internal drive to do. We also need to earn a living and get along with others. I think the people who hit the sweet spot with creativity find ways to have intrinsic and extrinsic forces working more or less together rather than being at odds.

You can measure outcomes in multiple ways. You can measure them from the perspective of how society views what a person did. You can also measure from the point of view of how the person feels about what they did. That’s something I think about a lot—I do something quite unusual, so I have to recognize why I’m doing it.

Q: How do you see models of life paths being used?

Nobody has ever learned exactly what you’ve learned, today or yesterday or over your whole life. Others will overlap in some areas, but not with everything. So if you look at the model you will see that as each person experiences different things, learns different things, they are going to have a different life path. Even in the large-scale context of all the people working in a certain field, you will see the uniqueness, the individuality each person brings to the field. That’s so important to me.

American cultural lore celebrates individualism, but in practice, of course, we’re a society. Most of our institutions are organized from the point of view of stability and promoting the broad social good. My hope in modeling life paths is that it could be a tool to help individuals develop their own potential so that they are more fulfilled and can contribute to society. I know we could do better with helping individuals recognize the value they have on their life paths.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints