Old things make new things. Take any baby in the world if you need strong evidence.
New things don’t play fair, however. They do not always enter the world with the same localized rush of emotion that babies do. Most new things shuffle out of the darkness into yellow pools of 40 watt light without fanfare or salute. Why? Its should be obvious. Genuinely new things are hard to create.
You know this already. If greatness were easy, the word itself would disappear. To be great requires that the majority of everything else…isn’t. Creating new ideas behaves the same way. Most of the time we hardly invent anything at all, leaning heavily on work that’s come before us. Imagine being a computer designer, tasked with developing next year’s laptop, but without access to a current laptop to do the work. The next thing we invent almost always relies on what’s already been invented. Coming up with an entirely new way of doing something doesn’t happen easily.
If you want to make new things, you need to know the history of the field in which you’re working. (In fact, if you want to be really good at anything, you ought to have a working knowledge of general history anyway! But that’s another story.) A strong understanding of what’s come before provides a frame for your efforts. You can describe ideas to yourself as well as your colleagues by referring to work that’s come before. A working knowledge of the past gives you tools to function in the present. Woody Allen couldn’t exist without Groucho Marx knocking ash from his cigar. The Tesla Model S couldn’t exist without the Toyota Prius silently pulling out of the garage.
For some this strategy becomes a recipe for mediocrity rather than a reference for invention. The past endlessly repeated can trap even the most earnest endeavor. The challenge is to discover what made sense in previous work, appropriate the lessons it contains, and refract it through new lenses.
Simply mashing stuff together isn’t automatically a good solution. Sometimes that works, but there are other strategies for creative enterprise you can employ on a day to day basis. But while you’re working on how to approach a solution for the intangible idea brewing in your brain, be sure you’ve done your homework about what’s come before. Once you admit the creative process is fundamentally tied to a cultural framework in which that creation exists, the future opens wide. The vehicle to carry your ideas into the future are the many journeys taken by those who came before.