How to Fly a Horse

"The creativity myth implies that few people can be creative, that any successful creator will experience dramatic flashes of insight, and that creating is more like magic than work. A rare few have what it takes, and for them it comes easy. Anybody else’s creative efforts are doomed. ‘How to Fly a Horse’ is about why the myth is wrong."

- How to Fly a Horse, page xv

It’s not easy to debunk a myth as pervasive as that of the “creative genius.” In How to Fly a Horse, Kevin Ashton not only welcomes the challenge, he makes a compelling case that creation, invention and discovery is everyone’s true work, not the province of a select few who somehow possess mystical powers and insights.

He punctuates his points in a freewheeling, highly entertaining way. From Bert and Ernie to the discovery of DNA, from South Park to the stealth bomber, from the bacterium H. pylori to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, his “secret history” covers so much ground it’s dizzying – in a very good way.

But he does more than merely support his thesis with intriguing examples. He uses them to encourage us to work tirelessly, shunning any distractions that keep us from the incremental progress that must be made if the world is to benefit from the next big thing.

Since my creative activity of choice is writing, this summary tends toward those examples. However, the actionable steps apply equally to scientists, musicians, sculptors or whatever you’re trying to create, invent or discover.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Creating is an ordinary act

"Creation is destination, the consequences of acts that appear inconsequential by themselves but that, when accumulated, change the world. Creating is an ordinary act, creation its extraordinary outcome."
- How to Fly a Horse, page 23

In Ashton’s opinion, we misrepresent the entire process of creating if we overhype its extraordinary outcomes at the expense of those somewhat mundane steps that help us reach those destinations.

We should create for creation’s sake, trusting that our creations will have positive impacts, even if we can’t always predict them – and sometimes, even if our work doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves. Ashton relates the sobering story of Rosalind Franklin who discovered DNA, but failed to receive any credit from those who would go on to use her findings to win the Nobel Prize.

We simply can’t know the “weight of our individual contributions.” And if we need to know that weight in advance, we will likely become frustrated. Although not referenced in the book, I’m reminded of John Berryman’s response to a fellow poet’s question about whether it’s possible to know if anything we write is any good: “You can’t. You die without knowing if anything you ever write is any good. If you have to know, don’t write.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Love the delete key (literally and metaphorically)

"When we envy the perfect creations of others, what we do not see, what we by definition cannot see, and what we may also forget when we look back at successful creations of our own, is everything that got thrown away, that failed, that didn’t make the cut… The trash is not failure but foundation, and the perfect page is its progeny."
- How to Fly a Horse, page 188

Ashton believes creativity is more evenly distributed than most realize. Everyone can do it. Everyone should do it. And with apologies to Nike, all of us really should “just do it.”

While certainly not as pithy, perhaps a more apt expression for the creative act might be “just do it – then undo and redo it again and again and again.” According to Ashton, your first start is almost certainly bad, but no worse than the first starts of others.

In one anecdote, Ashton shares how Stephen King will “throw away more than three hundred single-spaced typewritten pages, about sixty thousand words, which will have taken him more than a month to write, if he feels they are not good enough.”

In another, he shares how Stephen Wolfram – in an amazing display of quantifying one’s self – recorded every keystroke he made between 2002 and 2012 only to discover that “he hit delete more than seven million times, erasing seven of every hundred characters he typed, a year and a half of writing.”

I’d love to know how many times I’ve hit the delete key while writing this summary (and, yes, one might legitimately argue not enough).

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

You sell your soul when you waste your time

"Rejection educates. Failure teaches. Both hurt. Only distraction comforts. And of these, only distraction can lead to destruction."
- How to Fly a Horse, page 90

The delete key is clearly a rejection of what we just wrote and an admission of failure. But it’s not a waste of time. Just the opposite: It’s a step – perhaps only a small one – in the right direction because it teaches us what didn’t work and needs fixing.

Distractions are steps in the wrong direction. Right now for me it would be paying attention to the lyrics of that song playing in the next room. Or letting the barking dog outside command my attention. Or worrying that I haven’t stood up and stretched for forty-five minutes.

According to Ashton, “the three most destructive words in the English language may be before I begin.” If we want to create, we must not let anything keep us from one more iteration of whatever it is we’re creating.

Ashton adds a twist to the familiar legend of bluesman Robert Johnson who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play guitar better than anyone ever had. According to Ashton, “you sell your soul when you waste your time.” And that’s exactly what Johnson refused to do: He didn’t hang out with friends, play cards or even mourn his recently deceased wife and child. He spent every waking moment perfecting his craft, which has led nearly every subsequent guitarist since to revere him.

What am I trying to create right now? What are you? We could invest the next hour making it incrementally better, even if that means crumpling up 99 percent of our work-to-date and starting over. Or we could watch a reality TV show. The choice is ours.

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Bill Stadick

ABOUT Bill Stadick

I studied poetry and English literature in college then debt-stumbled into advertising, a job where words actually mattered. A few decades into it now, I recently left a communications firm in Wisconsin to start Page 17, Inc...
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