By Neil Pavitt and Menno Van Dijk (Thnk school of creative leadership)
Not knowing when you are going to get that breakthrough idea is what makes creativity equally magical and frustrating. Bringing yourself closer to creating something innovative and useful requires the cooperation between two contrasting states: controlled and uncontrolled thinking.
To create this synergy, you need to begin by being like a sponge and soaking up as much relevant information as possible. The more information you have, the more interesting and original connections you’re likely to make later on.
Once you feel like you’ve got all the information you need, you can start coming up with ideas. The Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling once said, “If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away.” If you find yourself worrying that it is hard to tell between the bad ones and the good ones, don’t worry: you are still warming up and your best ideas have yet to come. Don’t be too judgemental about the first batch.
Maybe you’ll feel that your ideas are all too incremental and too “in the box.” In that case, there are several techniques you can use to push your thinking – we call them Boxbreakers.
As your mind works hard to find that big innovative idea, you will reach a point where you feel you’ve hit a brick wall and you can’t think of anything else. This is when self-doubt and defeat can often creep in. You feel that your ideas will never crystallize. What’s really happening is you’re entering what’s commonly known as the incubation stage.
THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
During this entire process of gathering information and thinking of ideas, you have also been feeding your unconscious. If your unconscious mind sees that the conscious mind is determined and passionate about finding a creative breakthrough, it will deem it worthy of putting its processing power behind it. It’s important to remember that your unconscious will assume the subject is not worth it if the hard conscious work has not been put in.
There’s one good reason why you want your unconscious involved. It processes data 500,000 times faster than your conscious mind.
As John Cleese rationalized, “This is the extraordinary thing about creativity: if you keep your mind resting against the subject in a friendly way, sooner or later you will get a reward from your unconscious.”
What’s important at this stage is not to get too stressed. You’re entering the uncontrolled part of the process and this is where you have to be patient. Of course, you shouldn’t totally zone out doing something mindless, such as watching TV or checking up on Facebook. It’s like a pot left to simmer: you don’t need to stand over watching it, but at the same time you can’t go out and leave it unattended.
The writer Hilary Mantel advised to remain patient: “If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, and exercise. Whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party- if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space.”
The feeling is similar to being stuck on a crossword puzzle clue. You’re sure you know the answer and it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t think of what it is. Frustrated, you give up and go and make a cup of coffee. Just as you’re stirring the coffee, the answer comes to you as if from nowhere. It really doesn’t feel like you’ve thought it at all. It’s a gift from your unconscious.
The moment of insight to your problem will often come when you are doing a mundane and repetitive activity. How often have you heard people say, “I get my best ideas when I’m walking or driving home from work/ having a shower/ doing the dishes”? There’s a reason for this: while you’re doing these simple activities, your controlled thinking takes its foot off the gas, making room for your uncontrolled thinking and allowing your mind to wander.
FINDING YOUR DEFAULT MODE
We have two modes of thinking: the first is the cognitive control network, which creates focused, controlled thinking. At the heart of this is the prefrontal cortex, the home of most of our conscious thoughts. The second is the default mode network. This is linked with mind wandering, (day) dreaming, free association, and linking to messages from the unconscious.
The default mode network (uncontrolled thought) is triggered when the prefrontal cortex shuts down or relaxes. The most obvious example of this is dreams. When we are asleep, so is our prefrontal cortex.
Dreams have helped people find solutions to problems in the arts, science, and business. A dream gave Mary Shelley the idea for Frankenstein, Paul McCartney the music for “Yesterday”, August Kekule the shape of the Benzene molecule, Elias Howe how a sewing machine would work, and Larry Page dreamt of downloading the entire Web. Not satisfied with this achievement, Page also had the idea for the Google PageRank by dreaming of the links between the pages.
Unfortunately, we risk not capturing the ideas when we come up with creative solutions in our dreams. Being half-asleep relaxes the control of the prefrontal cortex, allowing us access to the uncontrolled power of the default mode network while still being aware enough to capture what emerges.
Hypnagogia is the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. Both states –which occur in the early morning stages of not being fully awake yet and the last moment at night when you are about to drop off to sleep– are both strong times for interesting ideas to arise. Edison famously tried to tap into this “Twilight Zone” with metal balls: he would sit upright in a chair and take a nap while holding a large metal ball in each hand. Once asleep, the balls would drop out of his hands and startle him awake, and he would immediately write down what was in his mind at the time.
ACTIVITIES FOR THE INACTIVE
Research has shown that a tired mind is often a more creative mind. It may sound counter-intuitive, but early birds should try solving problems late at night, while night owls should attempt to come up with solutions early in the morning.
Activities that help the prefrontal cortex to relax can also have a very beneficial effect. This is why mundane activities are so good for triggering moments of creative insight, for instance while doing the dishes, walking, taking a shower, and driving home from work. Einstein would work hard on a problem for a couple of hours and then stop to play the violin. Playing a piece he knew well would require little conscious effort allowing his mind to wander and ideas to arise. By his account, “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”
Another powerful way to nurture creative thinking is by walking. Many of history’s great creatives knew this, including Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Lucian Freud, John Milton, and Charles Dickens and Darwin. Steve Jobs was famous for holding meetings while he was walking and Mark Zuckerberg is now following in his footsteps.
Dr. Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, professors at Stanford University, have compared the levels of creativity in people while walking and sitting. Their research showed that their creative output increased by 60% when were walking.
GIVE PATIENCE A CHANCE
People are just as creative whether they walked inside on a treadmill or outside in the fresh air, so it’s not about the inspiring surroundings. The secret lies in the mundane physical activity that lets the prefrontal cortex take a back seat, letting mind wander.
It’s important to remember that these moments of insight won’t come if you haven’t previously put in the conscious effort into the subject. But if you have and you’re patient, you’ll be rewarded with a gift from your unconscious.
As the painter Joan Miró said, “I work better when I am not working than when I am.”