See It in Reverse

Ever get stuck on a problem? No matter how many times you ask yourself how to fix it, you come up short or just blank?

Try a reversal. Ask what you might do to make the problem worse or bigger or even more disturbing. Reversals are a great way to shake up conventional approaches. They can free you from the patterns that hold you back.

Last year, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin created google.org, a for-profit philanthropic organization. They reasoned they could do more good by not having to operate within the confines of bureaucratic legal strictures. Sound counter-intutive? It is. But this year google.org is giving away more than $1 billion — and paying taxes on top of it! So next time you get stuck, try turning your problem upside down. Ask yourself a question that reverses all your assumptions.

Here’s a link to a video that reverses one of our most basic assumptions. It’s about 5 minutes long. If you decide to click it, give it about 2 minutes before making up your mind. You may be surprised at what you get out of it. Reversals are very powerful indeed!

“The way up and the way down are one and the same.” — Heraclitus

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Resolution Convolution

At this time of year, you may be focusing a lot of energy on keeping one or more New Year’s resolutions. Focused attention can often make the difference between success and failure, but it can also get in the way. Sometimes we can accomplish a lot more by not trying.

Coming up with new ideas is a case in point. It’s often more productive to use the incubation technique than to try to generate a new idea by brute force.

How many times have you remembered the thing you were struggling to remember as soon as you forgot trying to remember it? How many times have you had a great idea in the shower or while driving? Often our minds work best in the background. A basic productive thinking principle is to steep yourself in your issue and then forget about it for a while. Relax. Listen to music. Stroll in the sunshine. Daydream. It’s important to give your subconscious the time it needs to do its magic. So if at first you don’t succeed, take a break.

And have a happy new year.

“You never have to try to breathe in, just out.” — Jan Simons (1925-2006) vocal coach

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The Power of Wishes

A wish can be a great seed for productive thinking. When Edwin Land’s 3-year-old daughter wished she could see her pictures right away, her wish was the seed for the Polaroid Land camera, a design that forever changed the way we take pictures.

There are wishes inside and around us all the time. In these last weeks of the year, ask yourself: What wishes are here? How might they come true? What does my family wish for? What do my friends wish for?

“You always start with a fantasy. You visualize something as perfect. Then you work back from the fantasy to reality.” — Edwin Land

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Using Your Noodle

Several years ago I had an online argument with another creative (we were both in the advertising business then, and in that business the people who come up with campaign ideas or copy or design are known as creatives). My online adversary was convinced that creativity was inherent and innate. That it could not be taught. Either you had it or you didn’t, either you had been blessed or not. I had a different view. I figured if you could learn how to ride a bike better or train yourself to run faster, then you could probably also learn how to use your mind better too.

Our debate was inconclusive, each side stuck to its guns, and eventually we moved on to other areas of discussion. But the argument had piqued my curiosity. I’d always considered myself reasonably creative — not the best, not the worst. So, why was it that some people seemed to be more creative than others? Why did some people bubble with ideas, while others just sat there like so many lumps? Why was it that on some days I was one of the bubblers and on others, I was one of the lumps?

Those questions started me on a journey that has lasted about 15 years. I needed to find out whether the ability to think creatively was a skill that could be learned and developed or whether it was an innate capacity that different people had (or didn’t have) to varying degrees. My sense —after a lot of study, a lot of debate, and a lot of fascinating conversations with people much wiser than I — is that both answers are right.

It’s true that some people are just more inclined to use certain kinds of intelligence. They seem to be hard wired to “get” certain things, like numerical fluency, or social lubrication, or linguistic play. Some people are just funnier than others. And others are better planners.

But it’s also true that anyone can learn how to think better. You can learn to be better at math, better in social situations, better with words. You can even learn to be funnier. Our individual thinking capacities may be a given, but thinking skills can be developed. Creative thinking is just like any other skill. You can figure out what the components of good creative thinking are, and you can develop them.

Now, that doesn’t mean some people won’t always be more creative than others. Of course they will, just as some people will always be able to run faster than others. I could train forever and not be able to run fast enough to make waterboy on the olympic team. But I sure will be able to run faster than before I started my training. Whatever equipment we start with, whether it’s mental or physical, we can improve it. So whatever your starting point, you can be more creative. Just by learning and practicing a few relatively simple strategies and techniques.

This blog will be about discovering new and better ways to train ourselves (I’ll start to use a word I’ve coined — entrain — to describe the type of training I’m talking about) to use our creative capacity the best we can. I’m convinced we can make the world a better place if we can simply learn to use our noodles better — to understand more clearly, imagine more creatively, and implement more effectively.

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