"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence –
whether much that is glorious – whether all that is profound – does not spring from disease of thought – from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.
They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
― Edgar Allen Poe, Eleonora (1850)
Why does creativity seem to come out of nowhere?
Why does it seem unexpected, or fail to fit in our neat boxes of how things “should be done”?
What does creativity look like and where does it come from?
Howard Marks famously said that the most interesting ideas come from non-consensus ideas that eventually become consensus and correct.
I think these non-consensus correct ideas can be found in the mad scientists who redefine the rules of what we believe are possible.
By definition, someone who is mad is not mentally sound – they are insane.
This means that they are not “normal,” based on the system’s definition of what the majority of people behave or think. Being mad is being non-consensus.
It may seem from the outside that those who are mad prefer a high level of risk. However, what is actually true is that they have a different viewpoint on risk – it is more risky if they don’t stand up for what they believe is true. This is their norm.
Those who are not mad wilt under the pressure of being non-consensus because they derive a sense of value from what others think of them. Doing what has already been done many times over, even if it is wrong, is the source of validation for the non-mad person.
Studies have shown that, while society portrays creatives as heroes, people are actually biased against creative thinking, that when people say they like creativity, what they are actually saying is that they like success stories. People are biased towards things they understand, and therefore are less able to recognize creativity when they see it early on. In fact, unremarkable ideas are more likely to be accepted than truly creative ones.
Because of this paradox, grit is actually a better predictor of creativity than IQ.
The truly mad stands alone against what is generally accepted to be correct.
A scientist is someone in the quest of a breakthrough in technology and science.
I agree with Chris Dixon, who believes hobbyists will seed future industries: “What the smartest people do on the weekends is what everyone else will do during the week in ten years.”
Hobbyists work on what Peter Thiel calls "secrets," an important truth very few people agree with you on (at least at first).
If a secret is well-known, the problem becomes not as interesting to the scientist because there are better uses of their time. Scientists (and entrepreneurs) thrive on pushing, and hopefully redefining, the boundaries of what is possible.
A mad person is just insane. A mad person with a secret is a mad scientist.
Mad scientists are the source of disruptive creativity.
At some point, the the mad scientist’s ideas switch from non-consensus to consensus, and this is when the most disruptive, industry-creating movement happen.
Hobbyists do what they do in their spare time because they are driven by an innate human desire: aspiration, fun, intellectual stimulation, disgust of the status quo, etc. If enough hobbyists share the same desire, a movement coalesces around an iconic brand, a product and company that is the standard-bearer for the collective mad scientists.
This was Ev Williams’ approach in hindsight for the creation of Twitter: “Here’s the formula if you want to build a billion-dollar Internet company… Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time… identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”
Are you a mad scientist? If you believe strongly in something, then why work for the system? Why seek validation from the system?
The brilliant military strategist John Boyd spent his entire career developing and proselytizing his ideas without regard for the rank of the most hierarchical of organizations that is the United States military.
He had a speech that he would tell his “Acolytes” at critical moments of judgment when the system threatened to suppress their creativity:
"To be somebody or to do something. In life, there’s often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision.
To be or to do? Which way will you go?”
― John Boyd
If the mad scientist doesn’t go after what they believe in, who will?