One day in 1939, George Bernard Dantzig strolled in to class several minutes past the hour. An able graduate student at UC Berkeley, it was not unlike Dantzig to stay up late pawing over an assignment. Only this time he had slept through his alarm call.
Dantzig rushed in, took his seat and glanced at the blackboard.
Professor Jerzy Neyman, had etched two mathematical puzzles on the board. Believing them to be part of his homework assignment, Dantzig noted down the equations and caught up with the rest of the class.
A few days later, Dantzig reconvened with Professor Neyman. The assignment had proven a tough nut to crack — but he had solved the puzzles nonetheless. Dantzig left the work on Neyman’s desk, blanketed by a thousand other papers, and thought no more of it. As it turns out, none of the other students had answered the puzzles. Not one colleague had even tried.
They were not puzzles, after all.
The statements Neyman had scrawled on his blackboard were not part of a homework assignment. They were famous for being two ‘unsolvable’ maths problems.
Nobody had told Dantzig.
Six weeks later, Neyman crashed through his student’s front door with a yell of excitement. The prodigy was still asleep. But this was a major breakthrough, and Neyman didn’t want to wait until breakfast. He had prepared the homework papers to be sent away for publication. In doing so, he would write Dantzig’s name in to folklore.
The student who solved the unsolvable, without so much as batting an eyelid.
I love Dantzig’s story. It’s a shining example of creativity that has passed through many decades, many journals and many blogs.
Because he didn’t know he ‘couldn’t’ solve the problems, he was able to tap in to the full expanses of his creative mind. And come up with an unlikely solution.
How many people give up before they’ve found the answer to their own problems? How many lost souls believe that no such answer exists?
A defeatist attitude gets you nowhere in life.
Creative thinking is a skill, not a talent. You do not need to be in possession of the genius gene to think creatively. You simply need to adopt the right mindset.
What is creative thinking?
Creative Thinking — A way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions (which may look unsettling at first).
Below I have compiled 7 essential tips that will help you master your own creative thinking.
We’ll start with the most obvious.
Brainstorming is a classic idea generation technique. It can take on one of two forms: structured brainstorming or unstructured brainstorming.
Structured brainstorming is designed around a goal with guidelines and rules. It is typically the method of choice for team meetings. Team members take it in turns to suggest one idea, and no criticism is allowed. The technique is designed to squeak maximum input from every member of the team, not just the domineering personalities.
Unstructured brainstorming takes on the guise of an open forum. Team members are free to suggest ideas as they come to mind. There are usually no rules or guidelines.
While these forms of brainstorming may seem destined for the board meeting room, and not for your personal usage, it’s important to note the differences.
If you need to solve a specific problem, a structured brainstorming approach is the best way forward. A good starting point is the SWOT Analysis. Describe your focus then work outwards.
A SWOT Analysis is designed to assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
By focusing on the four areas, you will be able to evaluate your problem methodically and reasonably. In essence, it brings structure to the madness of our minds.
However, if you lack a central focus, you may prefer to take the unstructured brainstorming route.
My favourite unstructured method is the visual mindmap.
Note: Here are five excellent mind mapping tools.
If I’m brainstorming ideas for a new product, or a new blog post, I will bust out MindNode Pro and splurge my entire thought stream in to a visual representation that ends up looking something like this, minus the artistic talent:
Credit: LearningFundamentals.com.au (lots of great mindmaps!)
The beauty of mind mapping is that it brings structure to a wholly unstructured process. There is no need to put a leash on your imagination. I often find that in searching for one answer, another creative idea wrestles away my attention.
Mind mapping has become an integral part of my week. Even when I have nothing of significance to map!
2. Keep a creativity journal
You never know when a moment of inspiration is about to strike. If you rely on such moments, failing to act on them is a major sin.
Keep a journal for all the brainfarts that interrupt your day. Write in the journal before you go to bed, and whenever inspiration strikes.
When you’re looking for a great idea, you might find a lead that isn’t relevant until many weeks or months down the road. Years even.
Creative thinking sessions should be broadly targeted. Don’t restrict yourself to solving only one problem. It’s amazing how the mind works, and rarely does it form a logical sequence of thoughts.
3. Surround yourself with creative people
This is a tough one, but super effective. Often you can tell a lot about a man by his five closest friends. Great minds are attracted to great minds. Creative souls are intertwined with other creative souls. I consider it no coincidence that moaning, bitching defeatists are often found in packs.
Our attitudes are contagious.
If you need to be inspired, spend an afternoon with somebody inspiring.
Go to exhibitions and conferences. Make a list of the friends and family you admire the most. Pick up your phone and arrange to meet them. There doesn’t have to be an aim to the meeting. Your incentive is to adopt their spirit, to channel their creative energy.
Spending 365 days influenced by misery gut defeatists is no way to rise above them. When I look at the notorious ‘We are the 99%’ protests, I think it’s such a shame. Such a waste.
If you want to conjure something from the economy, from yourself, you should be channelling the energies of those who are making it happen – not those bitching in a street with their woes confined to a banner and a chant.
4. View the issue as a legendary thinker would
Brainstorm problems through the eyes of your role model.
What would they do? How would they approach your situation? What life advice would they give you?
Most of us have role models, those who act as guiding lights for the person we hope to become. By laying down for 20 minutes, conjuring the image of your role model and vividly imagining them dealing with your problem, you will escape the confines of your learnt habits.
5. Hone your split personalities
Walt Disney, one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th century, might as well have been three different people. He was notorious for his seismic mood swings. Walt could show up to a meeting as any one of three personas:
- The dreamer
- The realist
- The spoiler
Some days, Walt could be found dreaming of extravagant new directions for his company. He would balance a dozen new characters, with a handful of foreign markets and a vision for the future where the sky knew no bounds.
Other days, Walt the Realist would show up. Any team member wanting to put forward a new idea was expected to research, analyse and ‘put up or shut up’. You needn’t open your mouth lest your vision be fully realised.
Then famously, there was Walt Disney – the ultimate party pooper. Just when his executives had decided on a strategic direction, Walt would take the poor troopers aside. He would paw over their plans, silently, before tearing them to shreds in a fit of disdain.
Walt Disney, the spoiler, knew how to police his worst ideas. His greatness was defined by an ability to switch between all three personas. He had dreams, he had expectations, and he had standards. You get nowhere fast without all three.
Perhaps the best advice I’ve heard for honing your split personas is to assign a physical area to each.
When you want to pluck inspiration from your Inner Dreamer… surround yourself with nature. Sit outside somewhere quiet, and allow your thoughts to shoot for the sky.
When you want to refine standards from your Inner Realist… go to your study, or wherever the nearest Internet connection is located. I find that when I want to get in touch with reality, I need to see what other people are doing. The Internet is a great research portal.
When you want to play Devil’s Advocate as your Inner Spoiler… go to a coffee shop. Detach from your home or work space. Treat the Cappuccino Rendezvous as a battle of wits. Imagine you are investing hard money in yourself. Comb for the flaws in your plan like a sniffer dog on crack.
So many failed ideas in this world are caused by a refusal to separate the dreamer from the realist and spoiler. The success of your creative ideas depends on your ability to learn this skill.
6. Get in to a positive mood
Huffing and puffing over a problem? You might as well call it a day.
Self-criticism and negativity suppress your creativity.
You will never be able to think at your creative peak when you are pissed off with the world. Never.
I’m not exaggerating. It’s an evolutionary trait that is wired in to humans.
When we are negative, we react to our environment with greater caution. We are less prone to taking risks. It is a mindset that in ancient times would have aided our survival. Unfortunately, it is not an attitude that is conducive to reinventing the wheel, or recognising moments of inspiration.
To maximise your creativity, get yourself in to a good mood. Bad moods cause us to scrutinise, to hesitate for a split second. A split second reaction is all it takes to quash your creative spirit. Don’t let it.
7. Nurture the subconscious
Until you see yourself as a creative thinker, you will never be one.
“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”
Creative thinking is a skill, but like confidence, it identifies and sticks to those who embrace it.
Confident people channel their inner confidence. To the rest of the world, their demeanour seems natural, at ease.
Creative people rely on a similar inner belief. They are confident in their creativity. Accepting of their ability to hone solutions to life’s problems. The rest of the world tends to focus only on the net result: products, services and ideas that didn’t exist before.
They call it genius, and yet the skill ‘to create’ is theirs too.
You have to truly believe you have the answers to your problems, or the grandest solution slapping you in the face will still not save you.
There are many methods for building creative confidence that rely on nurturing the subconscious. They attempt to shift your perception from within.
These methods include hypnotism, neuro-linguistic programming and binaural tones.
Each topic is deserving of its own post. I am a fan of them all.
Impossible is just a word in somebody else’s vocabulary
When George Dantzig sat down to solve the ‘unsolvable’ maths problem, he never questioned his ability to find the answer. Would he have managed the same feat if he knew not to try?
Creative thinking is that kind of skill. It rewards persistence and faith. You can have it too.
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