Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once said, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” His point is that, once we label and partition a thing or an idea, it curtails our sense of discovery and curiosity to learn more. We have to regularly nurture curiosity to allow creative value to emerge. But don’t confuse creativity with brainstorming, or divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is a critical component but not the end result. Divergent thinking—our ability to come up with a multitude of possibilities—does not necessarily equal creation of recognized and shared value.
For example, I showed a sign of a man throwing litter into a trashcan to my five-year-old daughter Annie and asked her what she thought it meant. She said, “It’s someone putting ice cubes in a hot tub.” Well, could it not be?
Similarly, our son Will watched my wife collect clothing and toys around the house to donate to Goodwill. After half an hour he had a puzzled look and said, “How can good Will wear all of these clothes? How old is good Will?” He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and it can be a good thing. Preserving a sense of remaining open new truths is a critical component of creativity, and that capacity to interpret the mundane as unexpected is innate in all of us.
To uncover the pleasantly unexpected in something we have known for a long time, or to have a novel interpretation of something we have never seen before, we must remain ever curious. This curiosity allows us to build a growing repertoire of ideas that, when gestated for long enough, can interconnect to create new mash-ups that, hopefully, are recognized by the world as possessing shared value.
When we are in flow—deeply engaged in activity—we can accelerate the duration it takes for those idea mash-ups to reach full potential by connecting ourselves with other people with whom we don’t interact regularly—or by making new relationships. These connections can quicken the process of borrowing brilliance to generate new ideas. Again, it’s those mash-ups of cross-pollinating, disparate ideas that leads to new value creation. Remember the most powerful new creative mash-ups often come when we reach out into our networks of people around us—particularly when we share, connect, and collaborate with those with whom we have weak (occasional) ties—that those new value iterations have a chance to form.
Finally, remember we find the best expression of ourselves when we don’t wait to be tapped by our leadership, our company – when we don’t wait to be asked. In our work, we all see opportunities to be filled, dilemmas to be solved, and possibilities to be executed on. And yet we hesitate. We’re waiting to be asked, ignoring the difficult, or pausing out of fear. That fear is often borne out of trying to anticipate what we think the company wants and expects of us – trying to intuit how the company or leadership thinks we should act.
The truth is, we will bring much greater energy, creativity and passion to our work when we take the lead, when we take the first step. Step boldly.