5 steps to disrupting your comfort zone and embracing creativity
In her new book, Creative Change, social psychologist Jennifer Mueller says everyone loves the idea of creativity even while we prefer the status quo.
Communism can stifle creativity. At least that’s the sentiment among a certain population in China, where the younger generation is rebelling against the social norms of their parents. Their main weapon to combat the boring ravages of collectivism is the smartphone app, Meitu, in which social media hopefuls attempt to digitally construct the perfect wang hong lian—“Internet celebrity face.”
No one spends less than 40 minutes doctoring each selfie, reports Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker. Meitu, the word, is thrown around as frequently as Google in America; it has become a function, a sort of public utility owned by a private corporation (value: $6 billion US). This, according to some, is China’s youth culture response to the stifling restraints of conformity: to break free of the mold and doctor themselves in any way they’d like. Which just happens to be the same exact way everyone else is doctoring themselves.
In her book, Creative Change: Why We Resist It… How We Can Embrace It, social psychologist Jennifer Mueller notices that everyone pays lip service to creativity, yet few people actually have faith in it. Its power resides more as an invocation than in its implementation. While many people like to believe they’re all about creative solutions, they’ll usually join the status quo out of fear of truly thinking differently.
Mueller’s focus in this short book is executives and business owners, and it grew out of a 2010 paper that she says has been downloaded over 65,000 times. The book itself is really a long essay, repetitive at times to fulfill a word count, though her point is substantial: we’re biased against creativity.
“Could it be that our ability to embrace creative ideas is not a purely rational process of calculating the odds, but instead a psychological process of simply managing our feelings of uncertainty?”
To fight against that bias we have to first recognize when we’re feeling queasy about battling the status quo, then transform those biased feelings to embrace creative solutions that, while uncomfortable at first, “may ultimately enrich our lives.”
Toeing the tech line, Mueller constantly asks her clients to “self-disrupt.” She uses two mindsets to argue her point: how/best, leaders that recognize the most feasible option now and are intolerant of uncertainty, and why/potential, leaders that focus on potential future value and are more open to an uncertain future.
Mueller presents a four-step protocol for self-disrupting, throwing in a fifth “lifeline” option should the prior steps fail. While her book is predominantly written for business owners and executives, her general guidelines can be parsed for personal use as the status quo affects us all.
Step 1: Identify whether you are evaluating familiar ideas, creative ideas, or both.
Mueller recommends a take on the Wisdom of Crowds (WOC) approach by assigning ideas with a creative value between 1-4, with the higher end being more creative. Employ at least 20 independent judges to evaluate each idea to decide if they are truly radical or fall in line with the status quo. Each idea should be rated on both creativity and quality—being creative does not mean it will be quality. You want to end up with two piles of high-quality ideas: low creativity and high creativity.
If you end up with only one pile, proceed to step two. But if your piles are split, Mueller suggests investigating the high-creativity ideas first, while everyone is fresh. Your team might move on to more familiar ground, but she advises to reserve judgment until the end of the session, “to let their thoughts incubate.”
Step 2: Prepare to self-disrupt.
We look for patterns we understand so often that we sometimes miss blatant outliers. Mueller suggests behavioral priming: bringing to mind an image of a person or story you admire. She fancies inventors, for they rarely bring an idea into being fully formed. Remember that failures along the way are essential steps in the process of creative growth.
Next, she recommends invoking a problem you’re trying to solve. Since you don’t have an answer at the moment, it leaves your mind open to the possibility of creative problem-solving. You’re then ready for the next step.
Step 3. Self-disrupt—accept the unknowable.
“Decades of research have shown that the number-one way to increase your feelings of anxiety and negative emotion is to actively think about areas in your life where you lack control.” By focusing on what is not—and cannot—be known, you only increase the likelihood of falling back on what’s comfortable, even if in the long run that’s the worst decision.
Mueller follows up with “go with your gut,” which, though cliched, holds merit. “Gut feel is the positive impression you have of the person pitching the idea.” Intuition is not mysticism but rooted in our unconscious ability to stitch together the past, what psychiatrist Peter C Whybrow calls “a primary component of tuning your brain.” Mueller does not suggest abandoning metrics, but by accepting that the value of the potential metric is unknown, letting go of anxiety helps you listen to your intuition better.
Step 4. Self-disrupt—shift from problem finding to problem solving.
Mueller employs an example from Toy Story. When Pixar was creating that landmark film, the cost of showing human faces was well beyond budget—Steve Jobs was not in top form at this point in his career. Instead of showing Andy’s face throughout the movie, they chose to show it sparingly, instead focusing on the toys' faces and Andy’s hands playing with them. Instead of a “human playing with toys" movie, you had “toys being played with.”
It’s easy to spot problems first—that’s human nature. Viewing problems as obstacles to be solved, and not seeking further irrelevant problems, is the mindset switch Mueller advocates. And if that fails…
Step 5. Partner with your opposite.
A little mental jujitsu here. Mueller suggests structuring the decision-making tasks to two people with completely opposite views. This will (hopefully) invoke collaboration. In this case, you can’t end up with a how/best leader that leaves no room for uncertainty or a why/potential leader who throws caution to the wind. As she concludes, “this step will require both partners to adopt a firm problem-solving approach in order to resolve the inevitable conflicts that will arise.”
Here's how partnering with his opposite helped Christopher Loose create his first startup, and sell it for $80 million:
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
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- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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