4 Ways to Be Creative By Dissecting the World's Greatest Maverick Scientist

08/09/2011 08:49 am ET | Updated Oct 09, 2011

Since the embarrassment is long gone, let me tell you something about myself ...

As an adult, I never read a book for pleasure until the summer before my senior year of college. Resting shirtless on the roof of my house, I starting reading "The Scientist" by John Lilly... and kept on reading -- hours passed, unbeknownst to me, and melting asphalt and tar fused to my torso.

When you're 18 years old, on the cusp of autonomy, it's an interesting experience to have a roommate enter the shower to wash your naked backside. Soap failed, washcloths failed, hair brushes failed, and thus poor Marc Turner resorted to using a grill brush/scraper until there were few signs of flesh between my neck and tailbone. I don't remember the pain. I do remember the end of my sex life for the next few weeks. Even more memorable, I couldn't stop thinking about John Lilly who accidentally set the course for my life.

As a maverick researcher, John Lilly was a pioneer in electronics, biophysics, neurophysiology, psychology and computer theory. He was also, arguably, the world's leading authority on the effects of absolute isolation on the human mind and how communication can take place between humans and dolphins. Based on his own laboratory work, cross-fertilized readings in western science and eastern religion and personal explorations into altered states of consciousness via sensory deprivation tanks, psychotropic drugs and eastern contemplative practices (think yoga, meditation and Qigong), Lilly devoted himself to mapping a small slice of the limitless boundaries of consciousness.

His mantra? All experiments must be initially conducted on oneself to avoid harming others. Sounds easy, unless like him, you regularly ingested LSD, ketamine and unusual concoctions in sensory deprivation tanks and flotation devices in the ocean -- in the absence of anyone monitoring his physical safety. The risks and losses to his professional career (i.e., federal funding, reputation) and personal life (i.e., divorce, psychiatric hospitalization) are well-documented. To Lilly, the search for meaning and knowledge outweighed the costs. Both intrepid and reckless, Lilly is the embodiment of curiosity and purpose in life.

What can we learn from his life:

1. The quickest route to creativity is the blending of ideas from multiple topics and disciplines (what I refer to as "the intellectual smoothie"). Want to know the origin of sports bras, solar panels and computerized insulin pumps? NASA space expeditions have been a treasure chest for entrepreneurs.

2. Forget your ego, spend time with people that are bigger, smarter, fastest and wiser than you. In an alternate universe, where Jack Kerouac had trouble making friends, he ends up being the comic store guy in the Simpsons. Sharing ideas openly inspires creativity and territoriality hinders creativity. Think Mozilla Firefox versus Microsoft Windows.

3. Seek out opportunities to make errors. There's this idea that scientists create experiments to test out epiphanies that blindsided them during midnight walks through the woods; their ideas work out, they get published and influence the world. Sounds too good to be true, and it is. Most experiments "fail," and most hunches end up being "wrong." I placed these words in quotes because people that want to be creative slowly comb through the residue to find unexpected, complex bits and pieces. With a new storyline, and a few replications, science is on the track to making a tiny bit of the unknown known. Instead of trying to win points for guessing what the future brings, be ready to handle the uncertainty, ambivalence, complexity and conflict that will arise. And if it doesn't arise, search harder because uncertainty is fertile territory for creativity.

4. Music, sex, dancing and nature are just a few of the perfectly socially appropriate avenues to alter consciousness, and in turn, change your mindset. Small rearrangements of ideas, on the fringes of conscious awareness, can do wonders for creativity.

Lilly has always been part of my wise counsel. Learn from the great ones, absorbing tidbits of wisdom a la carte.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University. He is the author of Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, "Designing Positive Psychology." For more about his public speaking and research go to or the Laboratory for the Study of Social Anxiety, Character Strengths, and Related Phenomena