Search and Combine Ideas

IdeaConnection Interview with David Kord Murray, author of Borrowing Brilliance
By Vern Burkhardt
"Originality became a concept born of possession, not a concept of creativity. Today the cult, the illusion, of originality creates a fog of misunderstanding that smothers creativity." Borrowing Brilliance, page 272

Vern Burkhardt (VB): In Borrowing Brilliance you say, "There's a wave of innovation that's just beginning to crest, and before long innovation and creativity will become the responsibility of all of us." Does this mean the pace of change will become ever faster as more and more people become the creators of ideas and new information?

David Murray climbs Mt McKinleyDavid Kord Murray: Yes, the pace of change from a historical standpoint, I believe, gets faster and faster as time moves forward. I'm fifty years old and I've seen it in my lifetime. New ideas, new companies, new products, and new services … pop up every day. A generation ago, this proliferation wasn't as fast as it is now. And a generation before that it was even slower paced.

This is due, in great part, to the nature of innovation – we build new ideas out of existing ideas. In other words, new ideas are the combination of existing ideas. As time marches on, there are more ideas, and so more "material" out of which to build new ideas. This creates the wave of innovation.

VB: What advice do you have for those who lament the current pace of change let alone knowing it will be ever faster?

David Kord Murray: Hold on for the ride. Learn to surf the wave.

It gets faster and faster because there are more ideas out there, more material for building new ideas, and communication has sped up quickly. With the web, it's easy to do research, get information, and study ideas. Creative people had better embrace the research capability that the Internet provides – it's phenomenal.

VB: Is it going to be more and more imperative that all employees learn how to generate useful creative ideas if a company wishes to ride the wave of innovation and therefore survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace?

David Kord Murray: No doubt. The previous generation was about knowledge and information. Now, those things are much easier to acquire because the Internet has made "info and expertise" much easier to acquire.

To be successful you've got to be the creator of new information, not the consumer or harbinger of it.

VB: You identify the first of the six steps in the origin and evolution of a creative idea as being to define the problem you're trying to solve and a matrix of associated problems. In this context what is a problem?

(Vern's note: the six steps are briefly described in the 'Conclusion' section of this article.)

David Kord Murray: In business, there is a whole myriad of problems. Most prominent are customer problems – what ones are you solving? Google solves the problem of finding content on the web. The iPhone, as a platform, solves a number of different problems including communication problems, entertainment problems, and personal management problems.

Whatever business you are in you need to be aware of "the problems" for that's how you're going to develop your new ideas. You'll develop them by solving the problems differently or by solving a completely new problem.

Human beings are so creative because they're problem solvers, but the key is to be solving the right problem. The definition of the problem is the basic first step, the foundation upon which all ideas are constructed.

VB: Is solving the wrong problem often a major risk for businesses?

David Kord Murray: It's the biggest risk. Your whole strategy is based on the problems you choose to solve. Your innovations are based on the problem you chose to solve.

VB: "First you copy, then you create. All brilliance is borrowed." Was there a specific moment when you gained this realization that the supply of creative thought comes from other thoughts, which you describe as liberating?

David Kord Murray: I don't remember the exact "moment," but I'd always borrowed ideas, and it was a very successful technique.

When I became the Head of Innovation at Intuit I started to study the creative process. I studied the ideas of others – the "big ideas" – like Newton, Einstein, Lucas, Jobs, Darwin, and others. And the pattern was there. You could see how they defined problems, borrowed ideas, and then made new combinations. Once I realized it, it was liberating, and creativity became a "search."

VB: 'Borrowing from faraway places will result in more "creative" solutions.' Would you explain?

David Kord Murray: If you're an architect and you borrow an idea from another architect… not very creative. But if you borrow an idea from the shape of a pencil, for example, then that's a pretty creative solution. That's how the original designer of the Empire State Building came up with the form for his design.

Go outside your domain, your subject, or your market to look for new ideas.

VB: "Metaphor is fundamental to how you think." Given that, as you say, you can begin to restructure how you think by deliberately changing the metaphors you use, are the most creative people the ones who can think up the most unusual metaphors?

David Kord Murray: Creative people think in terms of metaphor … how to think of my subject in terms of a different subject. It helps to get out of the repetitive thinking trap.

VB: You advise us to not be seduced by our metaphors. If that happens does it stop our creative process?

David Kord Murray: It doesn't stop the process, but it can be misleading. Metaphors aren't perfect. Once you grab hold of one, though, you tend to want to extend it farther and farther… and often it just doesn't extend.

In the past, people used a "spirit" metaphor for thoughts… thoughts were like ghosts in your mind. It was a good metaphor. But then someone extended it to the mentally ill who had diseased or dangerous thoughts. And so they started boring holes in people's skulls to release the diseased thoughts! It was called trephining. It wasn't a good idea; it was a metaphor extended too far.

VB: In your fourth step, incubating, you describe the subconscious mind as being "the womb for a creative idea." Even though you understand the process for how to encourage your subconscious mind to generate creative ideas does it still seem to be somewhat mysterious or magical?

David Kord Murray: It's totally mysterious and magical. It's a black box. But I've come to learn how to drop stuff into the box and let stuff come out of the box.

I don't know how it does what it does – its magic – but it's also very practical in the sense that if you can learn to establish a working relationship with your subconscious self. It can become very productive. I constantly strive to do this.

In my book I explain some simple techniques for developing this relationship with your subconscious self. There are three parts to it: inputting information into it; waiting, giving it time to think; and then quieting the logical mind so that it can communicate with you.

VB: Is one of the biggest challenges in the creative thinking process to train ourselves to accept that a thought is just a thought, and to not get attached to any one thought?

David Kord Murray: It's really difficult, I agree. Original thoughts are like children; we grow fond and attached to them. But that stifles our creativity.

Creativity is rooted in doubt and so if you fall in love with an idea, then you're not pursuing the next idea. There's always another idea. It's the premise of my book – one idea begets the next one. It's a chain of ideas, not a single one.

VB: "Judgment is not an exercise in determining an ultimate reality. There is no ultimate reality, only a reality from a certain point of view." Would you explain?

David Kord Murray: We think we know reality. But we only see reality from our point of view. We mistake our point of view for reality.

From my point of view the sun sets every evening and comes up every morning – that's my reality. It wasn't the reality for Neil Armstrong when he traveled to the moon. The sun never set or rose. You have to become conscious of your point of view and be able to change it.

VB: "You can't listen to yourself if you're constantly talking to yourself." The same is true if you're always talking to others you are with?

David Kord Murray: Exactly, creative people are good listeners.

VB: If you could rewrite history would you ban the concept of copyright, patents and trademarks because as you say, "Originality is an illusion?"

David Kord Murray: No. I think copyrights, patents and trademarks are useful things. They are necessary evils. They allow for a financial incentive in the creative process.

If the world was perfect, and we all shared and just took what we needed, then we wouldn't need patents and trademarks. But the Soviet Union showed us the folly of that assumption, right? I'm ok with these things. But I still think that originality is an illusion. It's not what it appears to be.

VB: Notwithstanding there appears to be so much complexity to the creative process, have you found that most can learn to use your approach and generate breakthrough ideas if they work at it?

David Kord Murray: Yes, and I should say it's not really "my approach." I've only documented it through a lot of research. It's the way the human mind works.

VB: Will the process and tools you provide in your book help would-be entrepreneurs who either cannot come up with a brilliant business idea, or have so many ideas they can't hone in on one to pursue?

David Kord Murray: I hope so. I hope that I am just empowering people to be more creative. You can do it if you set your mind to it. Part of it is magical, sure, but part is very practical, too. We are all creative. We're wired to be creative.

VB: As each of us increases our creative thinking ability will we gain a better understanding of who we are, or is it a paradox that we will know ourselves less because our ideas will always be changing? That by loving to create rather than the creation we will rely more on our unconscious self.

David Kord Murray: That's a really interesting question. I'm not sure what it means to "know yourself." I hope that I'm always changing and evolving. I also strive to be more aware of my subconscious and to have a relationship with it. A positive, productive relationship and have some fun.

Some people take their subconscious too serious once they discover it, and they then begin interacting with it. It's not smarter than you. You have to collaborate with it, not just listen to it. You work together.

VB: Using the thinking tools in the six steps to building on the ideas of others has, I gather, meant that much of the process has been relegated to your subconscious mind. In what ways has this changed you as a person?

David Kord Murray: I'm much more aware of my subconscious and I try and listen. In other word, part of my thinking process has been to stop thinking so much – to quiet my mind. To put problems away.

It's made a big positive change in my life. I used to brood over things a lot thinking I was being productive. Now I realize that "not thinking" is just as important.

VB: Does doing dangerous things, like rock climbing, flying in a small overloaded airplane, seeking the perfect wave to surf, and risking all your life's savings and going into major debt for a business venture, enhance your creative thinking? Or is it just an adrenalin rush?

David Kord Murray: Ah, nice follow-up question to the previous one. I do those things – the rock climbing, surfing, and skiing – because they help me to stop thinking so much. I have to concentrate on the moment. Not spend it conceptualizing about something. That's how I learn how to "not think".

Trust me; get on a big rock wall dangling by your fingertips a thousand feet above the valley floor and you'll very much be "in the moment". The business risks – well, I just view that as part of the game. I like playing the game. I don't place a lot of value on money or "stuff," while I do put a ton of value on experiences.

VB: Should our notion of intelligence be changed from what is measured on IQ tests to how adept we are creative thinking and borrowing brilliance?

cover of Borrowing BrillianceDavid Kord Murray: IQ tests measure a very narrow band width of brainpower. I hope by now most people understand that, don't they?

VB: Does there need to be a major overhaul of the school system in the U.S., and likely other countries as well, so students learn the skills they will require to be a creative thinker?

David Kord Murray: Edward de Bono has been a leader in creative thinking. I borrowed a lot of my work from his. I know that his courses and ideas on creativity are being taught in some South American countries and in Europe. I have no idea if they are effective or not. I don't know enough about the school system to tell you whether or not it needs to be overhauled?

VB: Given, as you say, "The world is complex and becoming more so with every idea," why do some religions appear to not have evolved to be more complex by changing their metaphors. For example, some stay with the same precepts about the origins of life despite the knowledge that has been developed since Darwin and thinkers who even lived before him?

David Kord Murray: Actually, I think religions have done an AMAZING job to evolve and stay relevant, especially since the age of Darwin. And I think they are evolving in the right way – perhaps back to their original routes.

They are becoming less literal and more metaphorical, and I think that's how they were originally conceived. God isn't a "father," but the concept of god is like the concept of a father. Over time, people began to take it literally.

That's the evolution of all things. New concepts start as metaphors and then become literal after repeated use. The leg of the chair you sit on began as a metaphor or analogy. Someone conceived that it was "like the leg of a person," but overtime it became literal.

VB: Does it surprise you that no one before you developed the thinking tools for creativity in the manner you have?

David Kord Murray: As I said earlier, I don't think I developed the tools. I observed them.

I've learned that the creative process is very simple but, at the same time, it's incredibly difficult. At least it's no longer a mystery.

VB: Of the books you include in your suggested reading list, which were the most influential in helping you borrow brilliance?

David Kord Murray: They all were – that's why they're on the list.

My favorite and most influential, though, is probably The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It's everything a good non-fiction book should be.

VB: Of all the creative geniuses you have studied, who is your favorite and why?

David Kord Murray: Isaac Newton. He changed the world more than anyone else I studied.

Before Isaac Newton construction was a hit or miss, and trial and error process. Engineers had to guess. After Newton we could build things without having to test them. Modern buildings, roads, bridges, cars, trucks, computers, and automobiles – they're all a result of the groundwork he laid.

We used his equations to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely. When I was working as a structural engineer on the International Space Station we were using Newton's ideas to build it.

VB: Is 'borrowing brilliance' the secret to the fountain of youth of the mind?

David Kord Murray: Yes. Growing old means thinking the same thoughts over and over again.

Youth is defined by creating new thoughts, and you can do that till the day you die. Walt Disney described the layout for Disneyworld on the ceiling of his hospital bed as his brother took notes, and then he died an hour later. Nicely done, I say.

VB: Was working on the International Space Station project as an aerospace engineer fun and creative, or was it just plain hard work under impossible time pressures and expectations?

David Kord Murray: Both. All of the above.

VB: What is your fondest memory of this period in your life?

David Kord Murray: It was exciting to be working on something so cutting edge and so important.

VB: When you were an entrepreneur did you intuitively use the six steps in your process for the origin and evolution of a creative idea?

David Kord Murray: Yes, just as most creative people do.

VB: You describe how your Jeep Wrangler had a serious electrical fire for a defect that had been subject to a recall. Did you receive financial compensation for all the damage, including the damage to your house?

David Kord Murray: No. But they replaced the burned out dashboard. I still drive the car today. I guess it was my fault because I didn't read my mail. And I never pursued any kind of compensation; I've got more important things to do. More fun things.

VB: How did you come up with the idea of creatively using many metaphors, including vignettes from your personal life experiences, to assist in "teaching" your readers how to use the thinking tools for 'borrowing brilliance' and, at the same time, making your book interesting to read to the point of being a "page turner?"

David Kord Murray: I like stories. That's how we remember things.

VB: Given that you wrote 2,000 pages of manuscript, are there additional books to be generating by combining some of the ideas contained in the ones you threw on the cutting room floor?

David Kord Murray: I'm writing my second book right now. It'll come out next summer. It's called Plan B: The Art of Making Things Happen. It's about the implementation of a creative idea.

VB: Who should read Borrowing Brilliance?

David Kord Murray: Anyone who's reading this interview because I'm sure they are interested in creativity and innovation. Among other things they should become convinced that borrowing ideas isn't just a thinking technique; it's the core thinking technique. It's about being creative.

VB: Does your book imply a happy ending?

David Kord Murray: Yes. Well, kind of a happy ending.

The creative process is one of trial and error. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. If you choose to live a creative life then you have to accept this. You have to embrace change and sometimes change is for the better, and sometimes it's not.

It's an evolutionary process, but in the end, I truly believe things get better. I think we live in a better world today than we did 50 years ago. I think it'll be a better world 50 years from now.

It doesn't mean there won't be tough times; there will. There will be challenges. And there will be problems to solve, but therein lies the hope. We are problem solvers, and so without problems we lose meaning.

VB: I understand a paperback version will be published soon?

David Kord Murray: It comes out in October. It's new and improved.

VB: Thank you. We'll also look forward to the paperback version and also to reading Plan B next summer.

Author David Kord Murray's words provide a better conclusion than I could write: "Borrowing isn't just a creative thinking technique. It's the core technique. Everything creative derives from it. It's why the creative process is so hard to understand. It's why the creative process is so paradoxical. Counterintuitive… It's full of paradox and it's not very linear." (Borrowing Brilliance, pages 262 and 263)

David Kord Murray identifies three steps in the origin and three in the evolution of a creative idea. They are listed below with a brief description of each, albeit one has to read Borrowing Brilliance for a full understanding:

  1. Defining – Define the problem you're trying to solve. A creative idea is the solution to a problem. How you define it will determine how you solve it.

  2. Borrowing – Borrow ideas from places with a similar problem.

  3. Combining – Connect and combine these borrowed ideas. Making combinations is the essence of creativity.

  4. Incubating – Allow the combinations to incubate into a solution. The subconscious mind is better at making combinations.

  5. Judging – Identify the strength and weakness of the solution. Judgment is the result of viewpoint. Intuition the result of judgment.

  6. Enhancing – Eliminate the weak points while enhancing the strong ones. Ideas evolve through trial and error adjustments. They self organize.

Borrowing Brilliance is full of thought-provoking ideas. For example, he advises that the best ideas to pilfer are the least obvious. "The farther away from your subject you borrow materials from, the more creative your solution."

David Kord Murray was being too modest when he told us he didn't think he developed the tools in his book – that he just observed them. The book is informative and a pleasure to read. The author's writing style includes humor, reflection, and many anecdotes from his extraordinary personal life experiences which adds a lot of interest – but it is certainly not self-serving. Yes, good storytelling is effective.

The author is highly adept at using metaphors and analogies which he says are important for creativity. Here's an example, which makes his key point:

"People are made out of other people just as ideas are made out of other ideas. This is why ideas give birth to one another and why I can say that brilliance is borrowed and always has been. After all, that's why an idea is called a conception in the first place."

David Kord Murray's bio:
Author David (Dave) Kord Murray began his career in 1982 as an aerospace engineer. He worked on the Space Station, the MX Missile, the Delta Rocket and the Space Shuttle. He spent a year in the Pentagon, working on President Reagan's Star Wars program as the Senior Manager for Advanced Technologies.

He subsequently became a salesman for a small finance company in Massachusetts, then an entrepreneur setting up Direct Capital which he later sold. He founding Preferred Capital in 1996 and within 3 years had grown the business to tens of millions in revenue, millions in profits, and employing about 200 people. The closing of the sale of Preferred Capital in 1999 for US$50 million was aborted, and within a year the company was bankrupt and David Kord Murray was financially destitute.

After a period of time he became the Head of Innovation for the software company Intuit in California. While in this position he engaged in extensive self study to understand what a creative idea is and how to construct one.
Seeing another entrepreneurial opportunity, he co-founded Taxnet specializing in e-filing software. In 2005 Taxnet was sold to H&R Block, and David Kord Murray is now a dedicated author and adventurer.

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