How everyday mindfulness can spark original thinking in the workplace
One of the first things you can do to cultivate your creative mindset is to hit the refresh button on your sensory awareness. If you’ve studied meditation or mindfulness, this will be familiar to you. But you don’t have to tap into something “spiritual” in order to wake up. You can practice “everyday mindfulness” as Harvard professor Ellen Langer calls it. Nothing mystical here, just good ol’ paying attention. As my grandfather used to say, “See what you’re looking at.”
My grandfather was a welder who ended up running a boiler business that put hot water and heating into big buildings. He was known for being able to walk into a building, look around and see things no one else noticed, like cracks in the foundation that pointed to a bigger problem than a leaky pipe.
My grandfather was steadfast in refusing to take things as a given or assume something was true because someone said so. He was an end-user kind of guy. He’d walk right past an engineer on a site and find the maintenance guy. He really looked, and from many angles. His way of perceiving and questioning assumptions is truly one of the blessings I received from him.
In the business world, the people who can look with curiosity at things as they are, rather than how they think things should be, or how things always were up to now, are often the ones who make uncanny discoveries. This is at the core of user-driven innovation processes. If you are deeply paying attention to your user (customer/client/audience), you WILL notice new things all the time.
So the question is, how to pay attention? What are we talking about?
My grandfather could see cracks in a building foundation overlooked by someone else only looking at pipes and welding joints. This is akin to learning to see the negative space in art. He could see that the way the concrete cracked suggested that not enough concrete per square foot (or meter) had been used. He could guess this might have happened because of corruption. He sensed things not only with his eyes, but also with his gut, informed by experience. Thinking in a “whole systems” way was intrinsic to him. He looked at things on many interrelated layers. This is one way you can leverage deep experience without getting stuck in assumptions. We can practice both zooming in — a kind of deliberate hard focus, and zooming out — where we let a wider panorama of perceptions, or the “negative space,” come in. Both are parts of mindfully paying attention.
In Wallace Stevens’ 1954 poem “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird” we are invited to consider not only familiar associations, but uncanny associations that point to the interconnectedness of things.
The intersection between your uniqueness as the observer and the uniqueness of the user can provide combustible matter, a.k.a. killer insights, and new understandings of users’ needs. This means letting go of the story of the way we want things to be, and focusing on what it actually is. Envisioning possibilities that originate in ‘what is,’ are often radically different. These new insights can lead to visions that are strikingly original. Then our observations can go beyond the technical and start to touch on presence. As poet Mary Oliver writes in Our World “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.”
All human beings are creative by nature; this is not exclusive to artistic expression.
As the creative mindset gets familiar, you will discover that it’s a natural part of you. You need your creativity to find new solutions to any kind of problem, in any kind of business, whether it’s building a bridge, managing a team, or installing a boiler system. The more we reclaim our creativity, the more likely we will thrive personally and make our organizations more engaging. The result? Our products and services will be more competitive and truly innovative.
This post is the first in the series Where Do Good Ideas Come From? by creativity coach Laura Carmichael. It has been republished on LinkedIn and in Thrive Global.
Laura is a classical musician who has worked for fifteen years as a corporate trainer and coach in the areas of leadership, presence, team dynamics, intercultural communication, women’s empowerment, innovation and creativity. She is on the faculty at THNK, School for Creative Leadership in Amsterdam where she facilitates Frontline Innovation programs.