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Innovation Insights
by Stephen Shapiro

Slowness + Purpose = Creativity

Christopher Richards, the author of an interesting article, suggests that the secret to creativity is slowing down. He implies that our best ideas emerge when we are in a relaxed state. In the article, Richards said that “Ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote most of his latest book while soaking in the bathtub.” Could be.

In my book, Goal-Free Living, I discussed ways of being more creative by tapping into something beyond the conscious mind. I wrote:

How do you shift your focus? How can you trust that the path you are on is the right one for you? There is no easy answer, but there are ways to help hear your inner voice. The word Mushin is used extensively in Japan. It means silent mind, empty mind. A mind that is void of thought patterns and mental chatter. The ability to listen to that inner voice is critical on the journey to self-awareness. It is said that Aristotle used to lie in bed with a ball in his hand so that when he would fall asleep the ball would drop and bang a copper plate below. The noise would wake him up, keeping him in a quasi state of sleep and consciousness. This is where he generated his best ideas and insights.

One of the people I interviewed during my travels, Doug Stevenson from Chicago, Illinois, told me of a similar situation he once personally encountered. “One night in college I was agonizing over a paper I was writing about Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. I wanted to describe a new type of writing that was a hybrid of journalism and fiction. I struggled for hours, thinking it through, but could not put anything coherent or interesting on paper. Then, I remember having this flash of insight at 3 a.m. I had been working on it for so long, that my logical left brain went to sleep. That’s when my creative right brain woke up—or at least it started to speak loud enough to be heard. My mind exploded and I wrote the perfect paragraph that summed up the entire paper. From there, the paper was born quickly and effortlessly. Once my rational self left the room, everything came together quickly.”

One “creative free-thinker” I know in England likes to take his team to Stonehenge as a way of relaxing and expanding their mind.

Purposeful Creativity

Although creativity can’t be forced, it must be purposeful. This is comically demonstrated in the IBM Ideating commercial above. Sitting on your butt does not get you new ideas. It is a process.

In the article, Richards describes how during that incubation stage of an idea, slowness is key. He gives a nice example of this “goal-free” approach in action. He said, “Our founder gets a vague idea, a gut feeling or intuition. Once the ‘half-baked’ idea surfaces, she mulls it over. This stage is necessarily purposeless. It’s more about discovery than goal orientation. The idea may even be forgotten, but there are underlying processes going on all the time.”

Richards says this stage is “necessarily purposeless.” I’m not sure I agree with that. Although the purpose is not to give birth to a specific idea, the purpose is incubation. The intention of something creative must be there. If not, the IBM ad was scarily accurate. The best ideas are generated while “meandering with a purpose” – moving in a non-linear, unforced manner, while making forward progress.

Or, as Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc, once said, “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect… connect experiences and synthesize new things. The reason creative people are able to do that is that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.