Microsoft used to ask job applicants vying for management and engineering positions an important career quiz question: You’re driving a two-seater sports car in the rain. On the road, you see an old woman, the wo/man of your dreams, and your boss. Who do you give a lift to?
The ideal answer?
Ask your boss to drive the old woman home while you walk the wo/man of your dreams home in the rain.
Why, you ask, would Microsoft want such an answer from top level applicants? Because it demonstrates four things:
- A knack for critical thinking and
- The interpersonal skills needed for dealing with and managing people. It also proves that they
- Can think outside the box and are
- Creative – qualities that are pretty much one and the same thing.
Thinking “outside the box” is a metaphor for being able to think differently, unconventionally, and/or from a new perspective – qualities that require creativity. Oxford defines “creativity” as the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.
Fortunately, we’re all born creative. Unfortunately, most of us lose this ability, and NASA scientists have proven it! You’re probably asking – why would NASA be interested in creativity?
Because according to Albert Einstein, “The greatest scientists are artists as well,” adding that, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come… to the conclusion that the gift of imagination has meant more to me than any talent for absorbing absolute knowledge.”
This led to his famous statement that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Now back to NASA. They wanted to find out if there was a way to test the creative potential of their rocket scientists and engineers, so they asked three questions:
- Where does creativity come from?
- Are some people born with it?
- Can it be learned/gained through experience? The results were stunning.
Of the thousands tested:
- 4 to 5-year-olds scored around 98% genius levels of imagination,
- 10-year-olds scored about 30%,
- 15-year-olds scored about 12%, and
- Adults scored about 2%.
The reasons for such decline are unimportant. What is important is that if you want to survive and thrive in the 21st century, creativity is a must – just ask Microsoft and NASA!
So what can be done to preserve, foster, and develop creativity among children, teens, and adults, alike?
First, it’s important to understand what experts believe is behind the decline in creativity (besides a lousy education system).
Social psychologist Graham Wallas described the four stages of creativity as being:
- Illumination, and
Preparation means having the mental tools needed to make sense of the world – education and a large vocabulary to understand and express ideas. Incubation means thinking over things. Between incubation and illumination (the flash of insight) lies the problem.
The older we get, the more we’re conditioned to think a certain way – an idea is good or bad, right or wrong, possible or impossible. We, therefore, kill an insight, suppress a flash of inspiration, or dismiss an idea – thus, no illumination happens, and no verification (applause from the audience, the success of a book, skyrocketing business, etc.) occurs.
The solution? Suspend judgment.
Whether by yourself or in a group setting, don’t dismiss an idea simply because it seems ridiculous, unfeasible, or downright stupid. Here’s what NASA, Google, and others do to build and nurture creative minds:
1. Encourage questions
In “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” Carl Sagan wrote, “There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
In a group setting, this means hitting people who make fun of others asking questions obvious to everyone else. Kidding! But seriously, nothing hurts a class or brainstorming session more than someone going, “That’s stupid!”
2. Have Genius Hours
Google allows engineers to spend 20% of their office time on any project they like – even if it isn’t related to Google. As a result, worker productivity and retention are high, while some 50% of their commercial projects have come from employees pursuing their personal interests and passions – leading to innovative products and services.
Some schools have adopted this system by letting students follow interests and hobbies unrelated to the curriculum. The result? Reduced drop-out rates and anti-social behavior, boosted grades and increased interest in higher education, better understanding of curricula and sustained motivation. Teachers also benefitted because they could spend more time teaching and less time disciplining and coaching.
3. Write non-stop
NaNoWriMo promotes creative writers by encouraging them to write 50,000-word novels in 30 days – meaning 1,667 words a day, every day. This technique is used by many writers – without pause or self-editing – till the damned thing is done.
The point is to prevent self-censorship – allowing the process of incubation to flow uninterrupted. You can edit and correct later, but only after everything’s done. You don’t have to write a novel, of course, but if you ever run out of ideas for a project, write non-stop for maybe 30 minutes then read what you wrote. You’ll be surprised by the results.
4. Change things
Sometimes, you just get stuck – even during a NaNoWriMo project. Solution? Get up, do something else, and/or go somewhere else. According to Professor Kimberly Elsbach (who studies workplace psychology at the University of California, Davis), staying in the same location can decrease creative thinking and suppress “ahah!” moments.
Solution? Work in another room or take your laptop outdoors. Her research found that just taking a walk around the block can boost creativity and improve inspiration. Why? If you’re in a rut often enough, your mind associates your workstation with that rut, so you have to change things up to get unstuck.
5. Proper rest and nutrition
This is the most obvious, but also the one most ignore. Your body and mind can only work so well before it needs recharging – which is why all-nighters don’t work. It’s also why the Japanese have the longest working hours, but the lowest productivity rates in the world.
And don’t forget sleep. It’s long been known that sleep promotes creative problem-solving, but researchers at Cardiff University now believe they know why. Apparently, REM and non-REM sleep helps the brain to find unrecognized links between unrelated bits of information – hence creativity and problem-solving solutions.