Suellen and I like to do crossword puzzles together. We enjoy sorting out the wordplay and ambiguities and finding the solution. When we can’t figure out the answer, we use the same strategy but different tactics.
Our strategy might be called indirection – we move away. I’ve discovered that I often find the answer when I give up. I look at Clue #3 and can’t figure it out. So I think, “Well, I can’t get it so I might as well move on to Clue #4.” In the very brief time that it takes me to move from Clue #3 to Clue #4, the answer often comes to me. I’ve de-focused and given up when the answer simply pops into my head.
Suellen’s indirection is physical and spatial rather than temporal. We typically work at a table and we usually lean in close to the puzzle. When Suellen can’t get the answer, she stands up and looks at the entire puzzle from a distance. She sees the puzzle as a whole and spots patterns. Capturing the global nature of the puzzle helps her sort out specific clues.
In both cases, we move away. We’re no longer trying to solve a specific clue. We’re not doing rather than doing. I thought of this when I read “Trying Not To Try” by Edward Slingerland in a recent issue of Nautilus. Slingerland is a professor of Asian studies and cognition (what a great combo) at the University of British Columbia.
Slingerland describes the Daoist concept of wu-wei or effortless action. “Wu-wei literally translates as ‘no trying’ or ‘no doing’ but it’s not all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, spontaneous, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective.”
Slingerland argues that achieving wu-wei requires us to balance and integrate Systems 1 and 2. As you may recall, System 1 is our low-energy thinking system that is fast, automatic, effortless, and always on. System 1 makes the great majority of our decisions automatically — we don’t need to think about them. System 2 is the conscious energy hog that helps us think logically and provides executive task control. When we say, “I gave myself permission to have another glass of wine”, we’re essentially saying, “My System 2 gave my System 1 permission…”
Wu-wei integrates the two systems. Slingerland writes, “We have been taught to believe that the best way to achieve our goals is to reason about them carefully and strive consciously to reach them. But [wu-wei] … shows us that many desirable states are best pursued indirectly. … When your conscious mind lets go, your body can take over.”
Wu-wei also reminds me of the concept of flow described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. For instance, Csikszentmihalyi writes that flow involves a stage called incubation, “…during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.” Similarly, there is an insight phase – an Aha moment. At this stage, too much focus can be self-defeating. You need to let your mind wander. You need to not try too hard.
Whether we call it wu-wei or flow or something else, it’s a remarkable concept. Trying not to try may seem contradictory but it’s worth a try. I find that taking a good long walk can help me get nearly the right balance. My body is occupied and my mind wanders. I’m not trying to do much of anything. That’s when the insights come.
How does creativity happen? Is there a pattern — more or less standard — that we can repeat? Is there a process that can lead us from ordinary beginnings to extraordinary ends? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — while not guarateeing results — writes that creativity typically evolves through five stages.
The first stage is preparation. Basically, you need to know the rules before you break them. Thomas Kuhn writes that scientific paradigms reflect a basic consensus of how the world operates. Prior to Copernicus, the astronomical paradigm held that the earth was the center of the universe. Before Copernicus could change the paradigm, he had to immerse himself in it. Only then could he make the observations that changed the paradigm.
The second phase is incubation, “… during which ideas churn around below the threshold of consciousness.” This is when I like to go for a walk. I like to lay things aside, clear my head, and let my mind wander. It’s a haphazard process — sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes I simply forget what I was thinking about. Other times, however, something bubbles up that’s worth capturing. (One of the reasons I write this blog is to double back on my own thinking, recall what I wrote months ago, and perhaps make connections I would otherwise miss).
Third, is the insight — the Aha moment. As we saw in the article on sleepiness and creativity (click here), focusing intently on the problem at hand may actually inhibit the Aha experience. When you focus, you block out random thoughts and stray ideas. But it’s those very thoughts and ideas that may produce the insight. When you’re tired — or when you can induce your mind to wander — those stray thoughts are not blocked out and can help you see things more creatively.
Fourth is evaluation, “…when the person must decide whether the insight is valuable and worth pursuing.” This is a difficult step. You think you’ve had a brilliant flash of insight … you start dreaming of a trip to Stockholm to accept a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a crackpot idea that your colleagues will laugh at. A thorough understanding of the current paradigm will help. If you’re a master of your discipline, you’ll have a much better idea of which ideas are worth pursuing and which are just goofy.
The fifth step is elaboration. You develop the idea, conduct the research, test your hypotheses, and present your conclusions to your colleagues — who may just rip it apart. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, “This is what Edison was referring to when he said that creativity consists of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
Does the five-step process always produce creative innovations? No, not at all. But, if your purpose is to create new ideas, products, and services you should always be cognizant of where you are in the process. Following the process doesn’t guarantee success. But not following it virtually guarantees failure.
You can find Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book here. Thomas Kuhn’s book is here.