Creativity in action: 5 great thinkers who changed the world

A creative mindset is potential – the potential to liberate your thought from convention, the potential to break through barriers, the potential to revolutionize the world.

But if you can’t apply that creativity, if you can’t make it a reality, what’s the point? The great chemist Humphry Davy thought he’d wasted years investigating the possible benefits of using gasses in the treatment of disease. None of his test patients’ health improved, while a few said they felt numb; so Davy concluded gasses were useless.

He was a very creative scientist, a Victorian-era ‘thought leader’. But Davy failed to apply that creativity in an innovative way – and completely missed the fact that he’d accidentally discovered anesthetics. Where Davy failed, many others succeed: history is packed with people who did take their creativity to the next level.

What can you learn from them? And how can you apply their lessons in the workplace?


In business: Charles Lazarus

Creative thinking enables us to see solutions to problems by thinking beyond the obvious. When you think of revolutionary businesses, Toys ‘R’ Us might not be the first organization that comes to mind.

But when it launched in 1948, the idea of a supermarket dedicated to just one category of product had never been tried before. Inspired by the success of the traditional grocery supermarket, founder Charles Lazarus realized there was no reason why the same logic could not be applied to his sector. His megastore for children went on to change the whole way we think about how we shop – even if its business model seems pretty ordinary today.

Lazarus was so successful that he inspired another precocious entrepreneur, Thomas Stemberg, to take the analogy one step further and set up a supermarket for an even more niche category – stationery. Thus, the office supplies monolith Staples was born.

Today, innovation in enterprise is all around us: an entrepreneurial, disruptive culture dominates the global market. Whether you’re Uber, Airbnb or Snapchat, it’s more often than not the driving force behind your success.

Workplace Lesson: Einstein, Alexander Fleming and Galileo all stole their best ideas. You don’t have to be original to be creative – Steal good ideas and apply them to your industry, department or field of expertise.

How to master creativity for business success


In science: Charles Darwin

At the time of the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, there were already various explanations for biological change. The significance of Darwin is that he was capable of arriving at a groundbreaking answer that married explanation to evidence in an elegant, complete, and predictive way.

Darwin took a mountain of data from multiple disciplines (botanical, biological, geological) and wielded his formidable creativity to transform it into a wide-ranging theory that explained one of the biggest mysteries of all: how did humans – and every other form of life – come to be?

His achievement puts the power of creativity into context. It’s not an overstatement to say that without human creativity, there would be no theory of evolution.

Workplace Lesson: Think big. Always ask yourself; is there a bigger reason for this? Is there a more important problem my service, product or idea can solve?


In feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft

It may seem like common sense today, but the concept of complete equality between men and women hasn’t always been so prevalent. There was a time not so long ago when women were viewed as little more than ornaments to society.

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the first voices to refute this idea. Launching a broad attack against everything from sexual double standards to the idea that only men should have an education, she showed that women are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

Written in the 18th century, long before the books of Simone de Beauvoir and other more recent writers on the social position of women, her work does need to be seen in the context of its time. But its inherent creative fire is there for all to see: not only did Wollstonecraft see beyond institutionalized bias – she found a way to discredit it too.

Workplace Lesson: Don’t be afraid to challenge the dominant culture of your organization or industry. From Wollstonecraft to Steve Jobs, the best creative thinkers know: just because everybody works in a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to work. 


In academia: Thomas Kuhn

‘Paradigm’ is now a well-known word. But few people will be aware of its original meaning: pattern. Thomas Kuhn was the first person to use it in the sense of an agreed worldview – this is a man who was so creative he changed the paradigm of paradigm.

Kuhn also authored The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a landmark text in the history of human understanding. At the time the book was published, everybody assumed science was simply an unbroken progression toward truth; scientist researches truth, scientist discovers truth, scientist applies truth.

But Kuhn wasn’t satisfied by the conventional thinking of his time. Instead, he saw no reason why shifts in scientific thought couldn’t be dictated by any number of less-scientific factors. By showing that scientists can be as resistant to change as anybody – and that revolutions of scientific theory occur in tandem with revolutions of mind – his work helped change the way everyone looks at science.

Workplace Lesson: Nobody is perfect. Never be afraid to take on the ‘experts’.


In economics: Karl Marx

Marx’s Capital is a fine example of creatively combining philosophical method with historical and economic data.

Imagining things you cannot observe is a fundamentally creative trait. Marx’s mastery of this technique created a theory that dominated political and social discourse for more than a hundred years.

His seminal text attempted to develop a scientific way of not only describing what was but also of what could be, observing the present and predicting the future in the same breath. What’s so great about that? Well, it allowed the father of communism to produce a new interpretation of history – and laid the foundations for a revolutionary structure for the organization of human society.

Workplace Lesson: Use your imagination. Reframing projects, cultures and priorities can result in revolutions that shape organizations and an industries for years to come.


Mining for creative gold

Just like Marx, you too can predict and shape the future. Adopting and honing a creative mindset is the first step towards being the person who discovers the Next Big Thing. When making decisions in business and our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of others and exchange creativity for expediency. But as the great innovators above show us, mining for creative gold can be a life and world-changing process.

Next time you’re about to make a big decision, think of Lazarus and Darwin, who used their creativity to connect ideas that nobody thought could be related. Think of Wollstonecraft, who defied convention to imagine then pave a bold and difficult path. Think of Kuhn, who looked through the same microscope as everyone else – but used a different lens to come up with a much more fascinating and accurate understanding. And think of Humphry Davy, whose greatest discovery ended up being discovered by someone else.

Creative thinking is one of six core critical thinking skills that you can use to significantly improve the performance of both your organization and yourself. Start mining for creative gold – and beyond – here.