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by Neil Phillips on March 5, 2010

Our usual way of thinking tends to stifle our creative thought processes, but there is an alternative perspective we can adopt.  Traditional reasoning often undercuts our creativity.  We get so stuck thinking in the box that we can’t imagine any other alternative.  And when we think we’ve had a genius moment and climbed over the sides of our cubic prison, we’ve discovered that we’re inside a larger box, and we get stuck. 

John Dewey, one of the great forefathers of our modern educational system, wrote about this idea nearly a century ago.  His label for this whole process was called Occupational Psychosis.  Now, he’s not writing about any big psychological problems.  What he means is that we develop some broad patterns of what we think fits with what (the round peg should always go in the round hole).  Dewey thought that we get so fixed in our thought patterns that when we encounter new situations we just mold our perceptions of what we see to fit, or we throw up our hands at the chaos that we’ve just encountered.  What we don’t do very often is engage in creative thinking. 

Our traditional problem solving process says to identify the problem(s), identify the solution(s), pick the best one and then just charge ahead.  This pattern works for most situations but it is not a creative pattern.  In our thinking behind the problem solution pattern, is a set of assumptions about what is right or wrong, and what is good or bad.  This pattern simply applies our set of assumptions to the current problem.  We never look at the assumptions themselves.  We get so stuck in the traditional pattern that we try to apply it to all of our problematic situations.

Here’s a quick example that I think we’ve all encountered.  A “big box” store comes into town and opens in close vicinity to local hardware, dry goods, and grocery stores.  The common solution would be something like:

  • Try to compete on price
  • Close
  • Try to zone ‘em out of business.

Basically, you look at what similar stores have done and chose to do one of the same things. 

To be creative, we have to develop some different ways of thinking about our problems.  We have to be open to creativity.  One theory that I think describes this open thinking process well comes from a philosopher named Kenneth Burke and he calls it “perspective by incongruity”.  It simply means bringing two ideas or concepts together that seem unrelated or incongruous.  Our thinking is jarred by a comparison we haven’t seen before, and we may start to think about traditional assumptions.  Our thinking has been taken to a new level when we focus on thinking about our thinking rather than thinking about the problem. 

Physicist Niels Bohr believed that if you hold two opposite ideas together and then suspend your thoughts, your mind moves to a new level.  This suspension of thought allowed an intelligence beyond thought to take form.  In his case, Bohr could imagine light as both a particle and as a wave and that led to monumental breakthrough in the field of physics.

There is one sad note.  There is no formula for creativity.  We can spend time talking about creative people and creative processes, problem solving, what usually works and what doesn’t work.  In the end, the only way to be creative is to be creative.  Everyone has moments of creativity.  We’ve all stood up straight, slapped ourselves on the forehead and said “duh!” in reflection of something that we’ve missed.  We’ve all had those moments of eureka and we’ve also all experienced those dreaded moments when all we can think of is the same old things.

The good news is that the more we do the things that allow our personal creativity to happen, the more we will be personally creative.  What do you do to think different thoughts?  What are you willing to do?



 About the Author: Neil Phillips is a founding partner of Team Connections and Director of the DSWA Coach Excellence program.  Get more from Neil on his Direct Selling Notebook , the DSWA Coaching Center and Twitter.

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