In an interview with WIRED magazine, Steve Jobs described his idea of creativity in the following way:
"Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they've had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have."
Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs describes many of the formative experiences he had. A multitude of intersecting factors had a profound influence on him. His counter-culture roots made him comfortable with challenging corporations and tradition. His interest in Eastern religions inspired his obsession with minimalist design. Jobs' father was a mechanic, and taught him the value of quality craftsmanship when building something. And California's burgeoning technology scene was the perfect environment to learn about emerging trends.
These kinds of experiences and environmental circumstances help give Jobs a broad understanding of how the world worked. His interest in a wide range of areas gave him a strong intuition for sensing what the future would look like.
If creativity is just about connecting the dots, then Steve Jobs had a lot of dots to connect.
So why don't we encourage a more expansive approach to learning?
People are often looked down upon for studying Liberal Arts, because it's not always clear how those lessons could apply to a career.
But if we only focus on a certain subject, then we pigeonhole ourselves. We can't make connections between dots if there are no dots to connect.
We need a diverse array of experiences in order to think creatively. If we only do what everyone else does, then we'll only think the same things that everyone else thinks.
So we should seek out obscure books, travel to uncommon destinations, and interact with eccentric people.
Steven Johnson says it well in his book Where Good Ideas Come From:
"Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wider than the sum of its parts. Build a tangled bank."