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Personal Growth

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…

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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.


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