Formalization complement creativity

I’ve always looked at formalization as an evil, which complicates everything, changing what is simple, sexy, and understandable to complicated, dull, and hard.

But now, I realize the vast advantage of formalization—a complementing process of creativity.

Creativity appears in the process of creating, not the opposite. Creating is formalizing—arranging moving parts into a whole, giving order to the chaos.

Without formalization, our thinking drifts into chaos, like a raft blown by the wind on the sea.

Two people looking at informal description can interpret it differently. The dish receipt, which says “add some of this, and some of that,” causes two people to cook two different dishes.

When two people are looking for a solution to some problem, often the problem is so vaguely defined that they start looking for solutions to two different problems. They start a dispute that concludes merely on a redefinition of the problem.

As the complexity of the problem grows, the lack of precise definition amplifies its hardness even more.

Informalism is vulnerable to ambiguity; it widener the interpretation spectrum. Therefore, when it comes to solving complex problems, the lack of an accurate definition of a problem makes it even harder.

The human brain has seven (plus/minus two1) “thinking cells,” and each cell can hold one variable at a time.

Formalization reduces the complexity because it immobilizes variables to constants; it moves them from “thinking cells” into text, recipe, schedule, equation, formula, or code. Releasing the thinking cells makes the further development of an idea possible.

Like a computer, once it reaches 100% of RAM, it can not move further—slows down or even freezes. But, the goal isn’t to keep cells empty. The creative process is possible only in these “thinking cells,” so they must be constantly filled up to about 80%. When all the cells get filled, you have to formalize — dump some assumptions/variables into a paper, schedule, etc.

Like solving sudoku, it’s possible without using hints, but only up to some level. The figure below presents a puzzle on evil mode. Consider the first square; each cell has at least four possibilities, therefore if you want to focus merely on one cell, you are left with 7±2-4 “thinking cells” for further deductions. Or, formalize—write down hints—and proceed with the full power of your brain.

Creativity is bottlenecked by complexity. By reducing complexity, we can raise creativity.

When stuck on such a complicated problem, which cannot be solved merely in your head, formalization comes to the rescue. It reduces the complexity and initializes the creativity process.

Next time you face some problem you can not grasp at once, write it down. Most real-life problems are not as “simple” as sudoku, yet we can apply techniques similar to the sudoku hints. Imagine an oracle, or a wise man, who can solve any problem once it gets an accurate description. Only by formulating your problems this way, most of them magically get resolved. The solution was already there—in your head. If you have too much on your head—start using a calendar. If you face a big decision—write down all the pros and cons of each option. Not only will the decision get easier, but also other options will show up.

Accounting, programming, math, academic writing, documentation, technical drawings, law contracts, all may seem formal; therefore, dull. But the formality is there for a reason, to immobilize variables and enable creativity. Once you notice that, you will appreciate why so many people are fascinated by these “boring” fields.

  1. Miller, G. A. “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information.” ↩︎