Everyone needs to be resourceful in their daily game. Be it entrepreneurs, designers, or product managers. How do creators step into their resourcefulness and what is there to gain apart from having a great idea?
By Robert Gerlach, creativity educator
To which composer would you attribute the following quote: “It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given as much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”1
[ ] Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
[ ] Ludwig van Beethoven
[ ] Richard Wagner
It might come as a surprise that someone known as the “Wunderkind”, was industriously studying other masters. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had to put in the 10,000 hours first to become an expert in his domain. If I want to move the border into the unknown a bit further, I have to bite — inch by inch — for every byte of information. It’s like building up a base from which I start my idea expedition. Having deep knowledge in a domain is a prerequisite for discovering a land no one has ever seen before.
The curse of knowledge
On the other hand, having accumulated tons of knowledge in a particular domain can also limit one’s attempts to start from scratch and think anew. This so-called curse of knowledge can be explained neurologically. As the brain is responsible for 25 percent of total body glucose consumption, it likes to save energy. Using established neural pathways is more economical than trying out new ones. Over time, unused neural connections wither. It becomes more difficult to overcome mental borders. It’s like being stuck at the base.
Unfortunately, the curse of knowledge can result in a know-it-all attitude. Know-it-alls can be spotted by statements like: “Oh, I knew that!” Or: “I saw that one coming.” Or: “What a waste of time!” Know-it-alls are unlikely to discover something unique because they stay stuck in their experience. They prefer to stay at base camp and cling to their beliefs because they know about the risks and dangers out there. They become risk-averse. Why leave the camp and risk one’s life? Or, in business terms: Why risk losing money? So, how to solve the dilemma of knowing a lot yet overcoming mental borders? How to teach an old dog new tricks?
To create new neural connections, you could either bombard your brain with new experiences, or you could resist to believe in your own knowledge and look at the new information with a beginner’s mind. The founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos puts it like this: “Inventors have this paradoxical ability to have that 10,000 hours of practice and be a real domain expert, and have that beginner’s mind: to look at it freshly, even though they know so much of the domain. That’s the key to inventing. You have to have both.”
But again, why do people prefer to stay in the base camp, where life is comfy and easy? Why would they not want to be adventurous and take a risk? Because an old dog is trapped in his world. He has to pay the bills and make sure the money comes in. There is a lot at stake. An old dog might ask: “What is there to gain outside the base? What’s the point?”
1. Be prepared
Two reasons: One, to be prepared. Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the geographic South Pole in 1911, said, “Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.”2
When the going gets tough, it might be the tough who get going, but it’s the well-prepared who will return home safely.
For an innovator, taking the necessary precautions means: having a diverse cognitive map. For instance, if the margins of your business are hitting rock bottom, you’ll be able to imagine alternative roadmaps. Mental diversity facilitates coping with being put on the spot.
2. Give life the chance to surprise you
Two, to give life the chance to surprise you; to get the chance to encounter yourself anew. The chance for an insight to dawn on you. The chance to question your values, beliefs, and even your desires. The chance to define yourself anew. The chance to evolve. For example, when I did the IQudo ideation survey 2015 in San Francisco, I was surprised by the fact that 16.3 percent of the respondents had their best ideas at work. Even more startling, people put “time to ponder” in fourth place only. The curse of knowledge to me was, that I was stuck on our previous IQudo ideation study 2010, where only 6.4 percent of respondents from different branches had their best ideas at work and in a longitudinal field study done by Harvard University, where time pressure was seen as the biggest barrier to creativity on the job. But things change. Nothing is set in stone. There is always a surprise waiting around the corner and a discovery to be made.
How to improve your creative game
Of course, there are countless ways to kick your creativity up a notch. Here I have collected six tips:
Enlarge your cognitive map. I often spend my days like a caterpillar, eating as much information as possible. Bill Gates still reads a book a week. In 2016 he said, “Reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.” A caterpillar who stops eating won’t make it to the cocooning stage.
Be proactive. Creators in search of inspiration can be compared to surfers. The pros amongst surfers know their secret spots and where to catch the big waves. They proactively search for them. Same with experienced creators: they know their places, magazines, and websites to trawl for inspiration. King of fashion Karl Lagerfeld can often be spotted at Colette in Paris, a trend-spotting clothing and accessory retailer. Let’s say I only have 10 minutes to get an idea. Instead of sitting there, I hunt them! I use a short time to actively search for inspiration in whatever is within walking distance. I flip through books, magazines, or websites. I talk to people or stroll down the hallway. Walking favors creative thinking. Mozart once said: “When I am taking a drive or walking after a good meal, or in the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind as easily as you could wish.”
Listen to the silent voice inside. Several times, it happened to me that something unknown inside urged me to go somewhere, where I “happened” to stumble across a game-changing inspiration. For instance, one day in 1999, I was strolling around the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) of Barcelona. Suddenly, I felt the urge to turn left into a small alley. As I walked down the lane, a small clothing store caught my eye. I went in, bought a pair of silver glittery bell-bottoms, and befriended the shop owners – Kuo and Pei. The two Taiwanese designers had rented the store for one month only to sell their collection. Shortly after, I moved into their big loft where we started to design a men’s fashion collection together.
Go sideways. I try to not focus too much on my goal. Because if I do, I very likely will come up with the usual suspects, but not with unusual ideas. Ideas can come to me from all possible sources. The more sideways I go, the more I enable the brain to make unusual connections and trigger new associations.
Take what resonates with you. Whatever it is that sparks my interest, I take it, use it as a base and personalize it. I adapt the inspiration to my case and then I blur the tracks. I work on it until I can hardly see traces of it anymore. Did you know that the Rolling Stones song You can’t always get what you want, was inspired by the Beatles song: Hey Jude? Mick Jagger said back then in the 60s: “I liked the way the Beatles did that with Hey Jude. The orchestra was not just to cover everything up – it was something extra. We may do something like that on the next album.“
Collect what resonates with you. Often an article or a design attracts me, but I might not know how to use it. I keep it anyhow because something inside of me feels drawn to it. Sooner or later, I might personalize it. Whatever it is that pulls me in, it is not my cognitive knowledge. Something mysterious inside seems to be ahead of time — call it instinct, quantum physics, or God.
1 Mozart: The Man And The Artist, As Revealed In His Own Words. Kerst, Friedrich; Krehbiel, Henry E. (translator).
2 The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Antarctic Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912. Amundsen, Roald (Cooper Square Press, 2000).
If you’d like to dig deeper into creative thinking, have a look at my new book Innovator’s High. This how-to guide helps you to build your creative muscle, foster an inspiring culture, and tap into idea euphoria.
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