thinking on the edge: how “conceptual blending” makes you more creative



You can become someone to be reckoned with by developing your deep interests and fusing them into a Molotov cocktail.

You could change the game that way.

You can become not only the best at what you do – but the only one who does the special voodoo that you do (and anybody else would come off as a cheap imitator).

Not so long ago I wrote a post about how to find your passion(s). One of the books I referenced was Andrew Halfacre’s FIRST, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT and in the comments section Andrew himself pointed out that

the search for a single overriding passion can be unhelpful – often its a patchwork of passions which you stitch together to keep you warm.

(Cal Newport thinks the word ‘passion’ has become overplayed and overrated, so he refers to “deep interests” instead.)

This reminds me of when Steve Jobs famously urged us to “connect the dots”.

Creativity is about combining and recombining different ideas. Creativity expert Michael Michalko calls it “conceptual blending” and points out that

Creativity in all domains, including science, technology, medicine, the arts, and day-to-day living, emerges from the basic mental operation of conceptually blending dissimilar subjects.

You take two remotely different things and force a connection between them. When your imagination finds a way to fill in the gaps – to connect the dots – to blend — that’s when you come up with the unpredictable idea.

(The good news is that the mind strives to do this anyway. The best way to shake up an old pattern of thinking is to throw in a new, seemingly unrelated element. The mind will work overtime trying to fit it into that pattern — until it alters the pattern. I did this with my novel-in-progress when I tossed an image of butterflies on my storyboard. My mind found a way to weave that image into the story and the story is richer for it.)

It’s the kind of idea that doesn’t just slightly improve something, but provides a whole new level of insight, a radically altered way of thinking, about a subject, category or genre.

It takes a ho-hum mp3 player and turns it into the iPod.

It takes an adult sex doll popular in Germany and turns it into Barbie.

It takes chick lit and dark fantasy and blends them into vampire fiction.

It takes literary realism and B-movie horror and blends them into Stephen King.

It takes modern art and African masks and blends them into Picasso.

It takes spiritual principles, business principles, and a dash of maverick poetry and blends them into Danielle LaPorte.

You see where I’m going with this.

Guy Kawasaki observed that “interesting stuff happens out on the edges” – where one material meets up with something different.

One force collides with an opposing force and they don’t just connect – they transform.

What are your edges? Have you found them yet?

click to tweet: get freaky. think radical. play your edges. change the game.

May 17, 2012

10 comments · Add Yours

This makes complete sense to me as a novelist. If I look at the books I’m excited to read (or write) they all have this in common. I’m still figuring out my edges. I want to try the Pavlina exercise and just haven’t yet… scared, maybe? :) (That’s one of my favorite posts of yours; I really need to sit down with it and some undivided attention.)


Thanks. I’m still figuring out mine as well…I think part of why I hit my “writer identity crisis” after the novels that were published (aside from the whole life-in-major-upheaval thing) was that I was trying to fit myself into a category, a genre, that just didn’t feel right. It’s like I hit that wall and then rebounded into blogging, where I started to figure things out. I feel a lot more confident now as a novelist + blogging has really helped with that. I can kind of see where I want to take root and grow, and it’s in a spot where a number of things overlap.

The Pavlina post, yeah, I know. I quit halfway through it — the mind kind of rises up and balks — but then answers kept emerging out of nowhere for days + weeks afterward. Usually while driving. All sorts of things happen in my head while I’m driving. It can be a dangerous place.


Absolutely love this. I was just blogging about permaculture — which is about sustainability and design — and one of the tenets is “Use edges & value the marginal.” In nature, the places where things overlap and interface are where the most creative & productive things occur. I think that in fiction (and in pretty much everything) this definitely applies. :)


“Use edges + value the marginal.” Love that.


I love this, Justine. This sort of “creating on the edge” you’re talking about is exactly what drives culture, new trends, and helps societies evolve. I have a degree in cultural geography and find myself constantly comparing & contrasting, and mashing up cultural norms. It’s fascinating stuff! Why can’t we apply this to our brand, to our own writing? Terrific! Great examples. :)


Right on. If it wasn’t for the fact that our deep interests can, in fact, intersect, I think I’d be wasting away in a padded cell somewhere. I’ve never been able to choose just one so-called passion to focus on. But I do think it can be difficult to arrive at a point where you feel free enough (from fear) to mix up your deep interests, especially when they’re very dissimilar. We run up against people all the time who judge or admonish us for such badass behavior.

The key, I believe, is to develop a confident playfulness. And to do that, I think it helps tremendously to find a partner who will regularly validate your play. For me, that’s one of my best friends. I don’t see him nearly enough. But when I do, he is a strong counterforce to all the other bullshit that breeds self-doubt in my creative undertakings.


Thank you! The intersections of different ideas are so much more interesting than forcing everything – your work, yourself – into one-dimensional boringness. I’m trying to figure out how to combine a lot of my different interests, passions, whatever, into something cohesive and interesting, and this week I happened on, which has some pretty cool stuff about doing just that. So I’m glad to see you also talking about similar ideas here. Yay for combining, mixing and connecting!


‘often its a patchwork of passions which you stitch together to keep you warm.’

Lovely! Thank you. To weave together disparate elements into what is uniquely our own. Some old poetry of mine uses almost exactly these concepts and words:

“…Elements weaving through the fabric of my life,
these are the golden threads,
which become the cloak, which I wear
to keep me warm.”

[the rest of that poem is here: ]

I am now wondering, are you aware of the Sufi ‘scattering’ method using Arabic word roots to create a whole impression on the disparate elements of the human mind?

This particular post of yours reminds me of that.


Cal is right. The word passion has certainly become overused; it has lost its meaning and become something that a lot of us can’t really relate to. Different interests/quirks/traits stitched together make up the person we were, are, and become. I think it’s important to find that overarching theme in your life, your particular angle, your lens, that’s why as Jobs says, ‘connecting the dots’ is so important. This is, no doubt, a tough task. Delving into your edges is probably a good place to start though. :)


Once again you’ve got me thinking in a way that will clarify exactly what I’m doing. I’d say I’m blending a spiritual (for want of a better word) world view with fantasy and magical realism. As for what to call it, I say illuminating reality and challenging perception on my website. Shrug. My art side’s in there somewhere too, but apart from designing my blog headers and stuff, I’m not sure where it fits with the writing.


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