Do not speed up, jumping from one idea to another. Take an idea and try to think about it. When you exhausted the things that come to mind, take a break. Then think again, and this time become creative. Think deeper. Read here, here, here, here, and here.
Creativity on demand
OK, the language I used in the first paragraph almost induces hypnotic trans. I used it for a reason. As we think about something for a while, the way we think changes. We connect to deeper layers of our memory, we allow the visual cortex to engage and we start feeling the reality from other senses. This is a sort of trans, only it has a very simple goal: generating creative solutions.
Do not judge the cover
Decades ago I had a girlfriend who loved perfume and used it as a metaphor. Eventually, she evaporated, but I still remember some of her lessons.
Many things can be observed like perfume: the first, the second and the third fragrance.
We are hard-wired to trust our first opinion, to be superficial and immediate. Going past the first impression is hard, and not always beneficial. Many times I have found out that the first impression was the right one. Yet, not always.
While the first impression is very primitive and intuitive, if we go past it our target starts to use its charms. We get caught into all sorts of elaborate schemes. This could be good or bad, but never boring.
The charms evaporate eventually, and it does not take too long. We are left with the actual substance. At this point, our judgment is clear and unclouded. At that point, true discoveries often happen.
Take the simple creativity exercise of finding as many uses as you can for a pen.
The first things we come up with are the regular uses: to write or to make images. Typically up to 5 uses.
Then we take a short break and become creative. We try different combinations and attributes. We can click the pen in morse code, or use it for tracheotomy. A beginner comes up with another 5 or six uses. A pro comes up with 30 uses within 3 minutes. Then the mind gets blank. We used all the prepared ideas.
Now we start to think deeper. What are the real attributes of a pen? How can we use these attributes for something entirely different? Can we put a sort of pen in a vinyl record player? Can we make a pen specifically for tattoos?
Eventually, we feel the presence of pens everywhere. When we point to something we do not use our finger but we use a pen. Then we let go of the search. It becomes subconscious. The next morning we will either have great pen ideas, or nothing to show for our efforts.
Forget the design
Engineers know that a working prototype can be shown only to other engineers. Just like girls often judge cars by their color and interior design, non-engineers focus on user experience and cannot relate to technology.
Recently at work, I asked one of our board members, which development progress would make him happy. He said immediately that he cannot wait for the new version of the hardware. I asked him what he expects to get from the new hardware, and he told me that he thinks the new hardware will support a certain software feature. But I know that this feature can also be supported in the current hardware. Simply the person who pitched him before me was a hardware engineer.
Consider brand awareness… The specific implementation is not that important. The marketing bells and whistles definitely sell, but do they provide value? Once we understand the features we are looking for, we may find a better solution for a fraction of the cost. The design and brand name might be different. So what?
Lies, bigger lies and statistics
To be truly creative we often need to go beyond numbers. Any great technology knows a peak of inflated expectations and the slope of enlightenment. Between them, there is a trough of disillusionment. Whatever the situation is, there are numbers to back up the sentiment. When the hype grows, one can focus on statistics of investments. Once the disillusionment happens, the numbers focus on closed companies. And if someone is capable of selling the puzzle, there is a huge IPO and equally impressive sells numbers.
When we need to think deeper, the numbers might confuse us. People tend to trust numbers, but these numbers were collected by people who do not want to look stupid. The presentation itself will be biased.
Every technical change of an important stock market index will be justified by certain concerns, fundamental factors, and statistics. Then there will be another technical change and some other selection of factors will justify it. If we think deeper, we might understand that algorithms love to draw certain patterns of trading charts and a huge part of trading is algorithmic.
We know that technology gets more energy efficient and the oil prices should drop. The OPEC and other stakeholders want to fight this trend, and so they generate political instability. There is a limit to what they can do, and the oil prices will continue dropping in the long run. In the short term prognosis, nobody knows but certain bets can be placed. Each bet will be justified by some statistics.
Critical thinking exercise
Suppose we read a book or watch a TED lecture that introduces a great pitch. We are excited and convinced to act. Should we act? Not really. We should collect more information.
Check motivations. Why the person who pitched us tried so hard to convince us? Is it a moral position? Does someone pay him? Maybe he wants to make a name for himself? Possibly all he wants is to entertain us while sounding smart? Usually, there are many motivations, but one motivation prevails. I write this blog for many reasons, but mainly I enjoy formulating new ideas. Everything else comes next.
What research supports the speaker and what research is against him? People desperately want to believe in things like cold fusion and will speculate about it even without a strong scientific background. Journalists often rely on their common sense, and then desperately try to find research supporting them. Researchers quite often make mistakes, and it is damn hard to recreate someone’s experiment in your own laboratory.
Why this idea is resisted? If the idea was truly great, everybody else would try to do it. Maybe there are technical difficulties that we do not start to understand. For example, why don’t we see a working hyperloop already, and why maglev trains function just on one small line in China?
How can we use our experience and creativity to make this idea better? What could we change to become the promoters of the idea? This should be something others could not think of: simple to implement yet hard to come up with.
We love certain things and hate other things. Why? Do we prefer beautiful? When we search for a spouse, this is often the case. Maybe we should stop looking and think about the substance? Can we do that?
Maybe we are focusing on the person carrying the message and not on the message itself? Are we moved by the person’s charm? Would we be equally excited if the message was carried by someone less charismatic?
Do we focus on a symptom or on a root cause? Quite often we try to deal with symptom only to find out a huge problem hiding under it. Maybe there are multiple symptoms for the same problem? If we have someone with a pain in his back, it can be anything from sore muscles to kidney cancer with metastasis. It is easy to deal with the symptoms, and very hard to find the root cause. Yet if we do not find the root cause in time, the situation may get worse.
Is our reaction emotional? We might be moved by jealousy to someone’s success, by hate to ruthless behavior, by despair, by apathy and many more things. Would a computer make the same decision? Would our mentor make the same decision?
Are we acting out of cognitive bias, like trying to justify sunken costs? Can we identify this bias?
Eventually, we go through all kinds of exercises. We kind of have an understanding of the situations but need to build a single picture out of bits and pieces. At this point, we do not need to think deeper but need to allow all the bits and pieces surface and connect with each other. We can use a mindmap and start building a puzzle, connecting the things that connect with each other.
In philosophy or in art this is called synthesis. After we analyzed every aspect of the issue we build up our understanding. This is not an exercise, but a need to find order. If we do not succeed, the subject will continue to surface in our mind like a compulsive thought.
Is a piece in the middle east possible? Nobody knows how to achieve it, yet millions of people obsess about solutions. Sometimes it is better simply to accept reality and concentrate not on nations and solutions but on people and friendships. Not everything needs to be analyzed to death.
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