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It’s not what you know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you ‘know for sure’

April 17, 2014

Julie Woods-Moss   

Blog Contributor

Why is it that the best ideas come to us when we try the least? I was pondering this while running in Hyde Park the other day and realized that some of my best ideas have come when my energy has been focused elsewhere. Creativity is desired yet so often elusive, a function of our thinking that has been analysed and researched so that psychologists can now create an equation for creativity. Perhaps the most exciting example of this is a recent study1 into the creative processes behind freestyle rap, which talks about the ‘flow state’ of creative freestyle rapping.

These studies, while fascinating, do not offer much help to the would-be creative thinker. Perhaps that’s because creativity is a natural state as the study shows – when people had freedom to create without pre-set boundaries then the results were more impressive. The lack of restrictions meant that they were able to create with greater ease.  It reminds me that there is no word for creativity in the Tibetan language, the closest they get to “being creative’ is to call the process “natural”.

There have also been studies into what makes a person creative or what the attributes of a creative person might be. A consistent theme is the willingness to learn from failure. Famously Thomas Edison, the inventor of the incandescent lightbulb, believed in the importance of experimentation, measuring his success in the number of experiments he could pack into his day. The ability to take the risk of failing and still keep trying is an essential quality for a creative mind. It seems sometimes that corporate life is designed to prevent mistakes from happening rather than to celebrate the discoveries we make when facing up to what went wrong.

Mark Twain once said that it’s not what you know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you ‘know for sure’. The ‘truths’ of working life may be exactly what is stopping us from looking at things through a new lens. We experienced this ourselves recently – the ‘truth’ of product innovation is that you do not release it until it is 100% perfect. We turned that on its head and invited users of our on-demand video conferencing service, jamvee™ to be part of the development process and that meant that the end result was a more creative solution than we’d imagined.

It seems as if we can only be creative if we take some risks. Firstly the risk of not knowing the answer and of operating outside the expected norms and secondly, the risk of failure. If we change our mindset and be a little bit braver about being uncomfortable and at risk we not only have the potential to be creative in our own right but also to be open to new ideas from elsewhere. As Linus Pauling, one of the founding fathers of molecular biology said “The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas”, which suggests to me that we all need to spend a little less time at our desks and a lot more out in the world. And now that cognitive psychologist Professor Lorenza Colzata of Leiden University in the Netherlands has proved that those who exercised for four times a week are able to think more creatively than those with a more sedentary lifestyle I’m going to be making those morning runs a whole lot longer.

When and where do you get your best ideas? How do you encourage your teams to stay creative? We’d love to hear your insights in the comments below.

#1 Neural Corelates of Lyrical Improvisation: An fMRI Study of Freestyle Rap. Authored by Siyuan Liu, Ho Ming Chow, Yisheng Xu, Michael G. Erkkinen, Katherine E. Swett, Michael W. Eagle, Daniel A. Rizik-Baer and Allen R Braun.  Publiched 15 November 2012.