Give a Dog a Bone

To tap the creative mindset and get to truly new territory, you’ll often get the best mileage when you deliberately put yourself in the path of the unfamiliar. This is why so many people love traveling, but you can do it in your familiar environment. In fact, here is where is may count the most. 

A sign that we are stuck? We can only come up with one interpretation of a situation, a person, or information, and we are holding on to it like a dog on a bone. 

One way out? Generate lots of ideas, lots of possible interpretations, often the more ridiculous the better. It’s not necessary to “believe” what you imagine as true, or to judge if they are good ideas or not (that’s later). The point is that by generating multiple interpretations your state of mind becomes more flexible, and you get yourself out of a corner. That one bone? Actually there’s lots more if we dig in this hole over here, or hang out behind the butcher’s shop at the right time, or maybe eating eggs is interesting today.

A new idea will come if you put yourself through paces that stretch your thinking. This does not always make things convenient or comfortable, but most often it will make you feel engaged and alive. Lust for life is not to underestimated.

Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky wrote in 1917 in Art as Technique, “The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’….” 

Herein lies a clue. 

When numbed out by familiarity, wed to what worked before, dominated by fear (of failure, loss of status, emotional vulnerability), or swayed by loyalties other than what the situation needs, we literally can’t see what’s right in front of us, much less feel it or imagine alternatives. To wake up again, we need to perceive, sense and make the familiar unfamiliar.

This freedom happens more easily when we can dial down the inner critic and the self-censorship it will evoke, and go for sheer volume of output. How can we get ourselves into that zone where spontaneous thoughts arise in an uncontrolled way? 

Quality control has to come later. Composer John Cage said you can’t analyze and create at the same time. My experience backs that up. There’s a difference between being competitive and it urging you on and focusing your attention, and being competitive and it shutting down you or your colleagues because judgment appears too soon. Fixating on a point we really want to make renders us distracted by what else is going on. Pushing is not necessary.

Improvisers know this. By riffing on a theme longer, your mind will spontaneously generate a new wave of ideas because the mind stretches to less obvious, and thus more personal, associations. Often you need to give it some time to develop. Herein comes the element of trust. Trust grows with practice. As Twyla Tharp describes in her book The Creative Habit, “It’s the same arc every time. The first third of ideas are obvious; the second third more original, and the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity, as later thinking builds on earlier thinking.” 

Being able to suspend judgment and consider multiple possibilities is often what leads us to the path of discovery and striking innovation. Underneath the imbalance, you can trust that you have all the resources to thrive, create, and connect. We make the familiar unfamiliar, and out of it a new idea is born. 

This post is fourth in the series Where Do Good Ideas Come From? by creativity coach Laura Carmichael. Sign up here to receive a link to this series directly in your in box.

Laura Carmichael