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10.3. Mental Blocks


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 10. Getting Past the Blocks > 10.3. Mental Blocks

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Given that all blocks are eventually internal, we can now use our knowledge of how the mind works to identify what internal systems are affected and consequently how we can get past the blocks.

When our deep needs are threatened, we are likely to fall into the fight-or-flight reaction, which has a strong tendency to kill ideas, even within our minds and before we have had a chance to bring them out and consider them fully. Consider again the needs in Fig. 10.2. Anything that negatively effects any of these is likely to lead to creative blocks. We can mitigate many of the blocking effects of such fundamentally important drivers by recognising the effects and using self-talk to reassure ourselves that we will not be harmed by creative activity.

Fig. 10.2 Remember the deep needs

When we come up against ideas that are outside of our mental models, beliefs and assumptions about how the world works are challenged, we are likely to either ignore the ideas or force-fit them into our existing systems. If I look out of the window and see a person shoot upwards past it, I would not even consider that they may be flying, preferring to rationalise it into existing knowledge (Are they on a trampoline? Attached to a wire?).

What will people say?

One of the most common blocks to creative thinking is the fear of what other people will say. Our deep needs for esteem and belonging are so strong that even when other people are not there, we imagine what they might say. Our self-talk often takes on the voice and tone of a disapproving superior (possibly even a person from the past, such as an old junior school teacher). We may even imagine how someone in the room might tell us what a bad idea it is, or we may suppose that when others are talking together, they are talking about our ridiculous suggestion.

Did you know that US Navy commandos in Vietnam wore women’s pantyhose? When marching through the jungle, these cut down on friction burns. They also could be peeled off at night, removing all the leeches that had attached themselves to the men’s legs. Imagine the brave soul who first voiced the idea. Many people would have rejected the idea outright, but, it would seem, the potential benefits outweighed the emotional cost.

When working with other people, it is important to explicitly give each other permission to voice ‘silly’ and half-formed ideas. Even when working alone, you need to consider the inner critic and it can be very useful to tell yourself that this is a special situation in which it is good to play with ideas that in other circumstances would, indeed, be unacceptable.

I don’t understand (so that can’t be a very good idea)!

When we are being creative, we expose ourselves to new or partially formed ideas. This uncertainty affects our control needs which sends us scurrying for psychological cover, ignoring or discounting the idea.

One of the most important abilities when being creative is to suspend judgement, separating the creation from the evaluation. By accepting that confusion is a normal part of the creative process, we can reassure our inner thoughts, enabling us at least to forecast that there will be a better outcome, even though it is not currently visible.

I’m not expert enough

How can I, an unworthy mortal, challenge the scientific deities? How could I dare assume that I have greater knowledge in scientific and engineering matters than the highly qualified experts?

Scientific historian Thomas Kuhn, in ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ pointed out how virtually all great scientific discoveries were made by people who were new to the field, probably because of the way that established experts tend to become trapped by existing paradigms, unable to challenge or even see the presuppositions on which their branch of science is founded.

Look at the page on experts. If a bicycle mechanic can invent the first powered aircraft, you can invent anything.

This is the way to do it (I’m an expert)

What is most precious to an expert? Why their expertise, of course. They have spent a lifetime building it, and are not going to be very keen on anyone taking it away from them. If you consider yourself to be an expert, stop it! You have knowledge, but that comes from the past. Creativity and invention are about the future, where your knowledge may or may not be relevant. Experts often see only one best solution; in creative situations there are many, equally good ideas.

Being an expert is the corollary to being inexpert. Both can be useful, but both can also be a block to creative thought and new ideas. Knowing the rules can be an advantage, because you know what to break. Deliberately challenging what you have taken as gospel truth for many years can be a remarkably revealing technique. Another good technique for experts is to ask inexpert people for ideas (and then really listen).

I know that

A variation on the expert trap is the ‘I know that’ syndrome. Having learned something once, we assume that (a) what was once true stays true for ever, and (b) we learned about all of the subject in question. The ‘closure’ effect described in Chapter 6 means that once we have understood something (or even just believed we have understood it), we close the door on future learning.

But as futurist Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Unlearning can be harder than learning, but to be creative we may well have to throw away all that we have held as true and start again from scratch. Many great discoveries and successes overturned previous truths: the theory of relativity overturned Newtonian mechanics, whilst’s business design led to a massive increase in share value without making any profit whatsoever.

To make such leaps needs both unlearning and freedom from the past, so let go and be prepared for the discomfort of that ‘lost at sea’ feeling, for as novelist Andre Gide said, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” 

That won’t work

Even non-experts have opinions and it can be surprising difficult to stop evaluating ideas. When we see a new idea, we immediately try to fit it to our mental models and then forecast how successful the idea will be. Unfortunately, new ideas seldom fit well with existing mental models and their associated assumptions and beliefs.

If you catch yourself rejecting ideas before they have had a fair chance to incubate, pause and turn the spotlight on how you are deciding that the ideas are no good. What mental models are you using? What assumptions? How might these be limited? Even challenge or ignore for now established scientific or engineering rules.

You do not know what will or will not work until you try it. And even then, beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Edison tried around 1800 different methods before he found the right combination for the light bulb. One of his comments was that ‘Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.’

This is not a creative problem

Another trap of mental models is that when we classify things, we do not consider any use outside that classification. This is what Karl Dunker called functional fixedness, and blinds us to many possibilities. We also suffer from other forms of blindness, including assuming that because customers do not complain, they are satisfied, and that what worked yesterday will also work tomorrow.

We do overcome classification. Have you ever used a screwdriver to open a tin of paint, or a paintbrush to dust a delicate object? That is not their intended purpose, but you have learned to adapt the tool to other uses. The trick is to see the assumptions that you are making and to challenge them.

I’m not creative

This is a very common belief block, often rooted in early childhood where you were taught to conform and that being creative with your food or mother’s lipstick was not acceptable behaviour.

Of course, like any ability or skill, there are talented people for whom being creative is easier than for others, but in no way does that mean that you are not creative. Most people operate far below their creative potential. In fact we are constantly being creative, having thoughts, saying and doing things we have never thought, said or did before.

The block is the belief, not the ability. You have been very creative before; all you need to do is remember how to do it (and the memory is there).

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