Monkey Mind

Thinking creatively with Tim Hurston

SUCCESS: I heard that you take issue with the term “out-of-the-box thinking.” Is that true?

Tim Hurson: There seems to be this attitude that creative thinking or productive thinking is separate or apart from the way we should think normally. It’s as though we say to ourselves, “OK, now let’s do some out-of-the-box thinking. Let’s go to this special place, this room, this psychic space, and do this odd sort of thinking.” It would make as much sense if you were to say, “Let’s think ethically for a moment.” It should be a part of what we are, not separate from what we are.
Any other misconceptions you’d like to smash?

TH: There is no such thing as an excellent first draft. In business, we expect those first ideas to be wonderful. Historical geniuses knew it was important to make lists. Look at Leonardo da Vinci. He is famous for his notebooks. He wrote and explored until those ideas came to him. Thomas Edison made list, after list of stuff that might be possible. Almost every creative genius you can think of was a list maker, and from those lists was able to choose and develop ideas of value, beauty or interest. We don’t do that anymore. We come up with the first right answer and think that is the one. If you list 100 ideas, you will have a much better chance of finding a good one than if you list two ideas.
OK, so it’s important to list your ideas. But what if someone just isn’t very creative to begin with?

TH: The sad thing is people do tend to categorize themselves as being creative or not creative, or smart or not smart. But all of us have in us—just as we have the ability to love—we have the ability to be creative. It is in-built. Some of us may need to learn some stuff about it and develop skills, but it is there. It’s just a question of learning a few new ways to use the material we already have. We all have the same blockages and the same potential. It doesn’t mean everyone is going to be Michael Jordan; it just means wherever you are now, you can be better.
So what are some blockages to creative thinking?

TH: There are dozens, but let’s explore two that are common. The first is “satisficing,” a word coined by Herbert Simon, an economist and philosopher from the 1960s. What he meant by satisficing is that human beings have a really difficult time with issues that are unresolved. We will do anything we can to get out of that limbo state of not knowing the answer or not being secure with our level of knowledge, and because of that, we will often jump at the first right answer that takes us out of that uncomfortable state of I don’t know. And often that first right answer isn’t a very good answer at all. Those first right answers are generally not the best ones.
Most brainstorming sessions manifest like this: How about we try this? No, that won’t work. How about we try this? No, too expensive. And finally, someone else will say, How about we try this? and someone will say, Oh, yeah, that might work and then suddenly the meeting is over. It’s like we explored and explored until we came to that first right answer and then we stopped thinking. This is really common, but what people think are right answers, are really just comfortable answers. Research tells us that it’s usually not the first third of a good brainstorming session, or even the second third, but the final third where all the really exciting answers come, because we have gotten past all the top-of-mind things. Look for all those final third ideas. I guarantee those will be the most innovative, exciting, and frankly, the scariest. Those are the ideas that will make you feel uncomfortable because they involve risk.

What’s the second barrier you mentioned?

TH: The second is distraction. I like the term monkey mind. Your mind has a mind of its own and it’s hard to control. Whether you are reading or driving in a car, your mind has a tendency to take you for a ride, often to destinations very different from the one you planned to visit. It is a sign of non-concentration because it doesn’t allow you to focus on any one thing. But monkey mind isn’t always a bad thing.
How can something called “monkey mind” not be a bad thing?

TH: Most people say they get their best ideas while walking or exercising. But the No. 1 answer is: in the shower. Why is that? It is because of your monkey mind—your mind is swinging from idea branch to idea branch like a monkey in a tree. In the shower, your defenses are down, and as a result, you give yourself permission to come up with ideas. This is why when you are drifting off to sleep, you often come up with these great ideas because monkey mind is going to work. If you can mine monkey mind for those great ideas, it’s really terrific.
How do we do that?

TH: I like to say that the reason people have their best ideas in the shower is because their judge is all wet. We have given ourselves permission to articulate those ideas to ourselves that we would almost never articulate when we are in a more serious or rational mode. Of the top places where people get their best ideas, not one of them has to do with business. It is amazing…. We spend so much of our lives worrying about what we are projecting, so we filter things. We say, If I say that, they will really think I’m an idiot. But they just might think you’re a genius.

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