What do you bring to the party of your life?

If you’re invited to a dinner party the safest thing you can do is to bring a salad. A run-of-the-mill, standard, non-flashy salad.

Most people aren’t shocked or surprised when they’re presented with a traditional salad. It may not be their first choice when it comes time to start serving food, but a salad is about as conservative as you can get when it comes to dinner parties. Or maybe some type of bread, or a glass of wine. There aren’t many allergies or food constraints you have to account for when it comes to constructing a salad (assuming you’re omitting nuts). A salad is a good “filler” food, it goes well as an appetizer or a side.

Of course the value of a good salad is equal to its offering: average compared to other food items which may or may not offer more in the way of flavor or pizzazz.

If you want to play it a bit more dangerously, you could bring something much more unique and fancy to the party. Maybe a ramen dish with slow grilled steak and a Thai-themed sauce, or a big bowl of spicy kimchi slaw.

The problem with a fancy food dish is that not everyone can or will want to partake.

There may be vegetarians in the crowd who morally object what you’ve brought, or someone who just doesn’t like spicy foods. Maybe the uncertainty of exactly what a “Thai-inspired” sauce entails is enough to turn people off from even trying it. You might not want people to reject your offering, especially if your goal is to make a good impression. And yet, a salad doesn’t make much of any impression, let alone a good one.

A traditional salad is just safe, little more.

Why? Because a standard salad doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It doesn’t create a memorable experience or deliver a punch of any type. It’s not the type of thing someone will want to discuss with their significant other on the drive home from the party.

If you want to fulfill the bare minimum requirements of bringing something to a dinner party, a salad is the way to go. But if you want to do something a bit more memorable, with a bit more flavor and a bit more of an impact on those who partake, a basic salad won’t cut it.

You’re better off experimenting.

The cost of bringing something other than salad to the table is, of course, you’re going to upset somebody. The trade-off for working on something not only valuable but also unique is that what you make won’t be for everybody.

If you want to be comfortable and blend-in, going with the safe bet is a great way to do just that. But if you want to stand out and do something a little more unique, you have to embrace the fact that you’re going to be uncomfortable doing so. Because the cost of valuable and unique is turning off somebody, somewhere, who doesn’t want to be uncomfortable themselves, or who don’t believe their comfort should be the cost of your grand idea.

Ultimately it’s up for you to decide. Is the party you’re going to every day at work or school or in your relationships the type where it’s best to prepare a salad? Or is it the type of party where you’ll want to make a splash, even if it means some people will be turned off because of it?

What we get from the things that don't belong

Our first reaction to an encounter something that seemingly doesn’t belong is to ridicule it.

If it, whatever it is, doesn’t belong it could be dangerous to our familiar way of doing things, putting our hard-earned beliefs and processes at risk. Nobody wants to be told that idea they’ve had their entire life, it turns out, wasn’t right. Or that the way they’ve always done something is the actually the most inefficient way of doing it.

It’s only natural that we reject the new and different in favor of the old and familiar, particularly if what’s new is naturally out of place.

But what we miss by rejecting those things that occasional misplaced is an opportunity to improve; ourselves, our work, or our environment.

That wacky coworker or classmate might make you roll your eyes, but they also have the ability to make you see things in a different way. Adding an item that doesn’t belong into your environment might at first be a distraction, but it also might make you start doing things in an unfamiliar, empowering way.

Sometimes you can’t beat a good old pen and paper for taking notes while everyone else is writing on their laptop (research shows this old-fashioned way of doing things actually helps retain more knowledge).

Using a satirical, oversized marker and a huge pad of paper might make you feel silly in a meeting, but it also might cause you to focus on the big-picture rather than the unnecessary details.

And if you fill a building with a bit of nature you might start to reevaluate how you think about the environments you spend so much time in every day.

Photos by photographer  Gohar Dashti .

Photos by photographer Gohar Dashti.

The odd thing in a familiar place can often cause us to see things in a different way. And just because not everyone sees the value in the strange doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. Not everyone needs to accept the thing that doesn’t belong initially, that’s why we label it as something that "doesn’t belong.”

Of course we know this because the likes of Einstein, Picasso, Beethoven, Curie all had their ideas and work rejected by the populace out of the gate.

We don’t get to discover the creative—the new and valuable—unless we’re willing to look at something that doesn’t belong and ask ourselves: what does this cause me to see or think in a new way?

Creating a mirror for your mind

To learn whether or not there’s something in your teeth, you use a mirror.

Mirrors tell us almost everything physically about the outside of our bodies. Are we having a good hair day? Does our outfit look attractive? Are the rings under our eyes getting softer or darker? Do we look how we want to be perceived today?

Mirrors can be helpful for getting a glimpse into how we look on our outside, but don’t do very much for exposing us to what’s going on inside. They’re specifically not very helpful for reflecting what’s going on our minds.

To look around our thoughts and feelings we need other, specialized tools.

Most of us feel as though we already have a good handle on our thoughts. Why would we need something to reflect back to us what we’re already thinking? But, like the time you got a big leaf of spinach stuck in your teeth, you don’t know what you don’t know about yourself until the mirror shows it to you.

For reflecting your thoughts and ideas you need a mirror for the mind. And there are a myriad of tools we can use to reflect what’s going on inside our brains. Therapists and conversations with close friends can be insightful.

Undoubtedly the best mirror for your mind comes in the form of a regular journal.

Personal journals, like mirrors, allow us to see ourselves from our own advantage. They ask us to look and interpret what it is we see about ourselves, and all the beauty or ugliness that comes with it.

When we take time to journal we’re stepping up to the mirror and taking note of what we see. Are we having good thoughts? Do our ideas feel unique and valuable? Are we consistently thinking in the same ways we always have, limiting our ability to see new possibilities? Do we think in ways we want to be?

It’s hard to know what your hair is doing at any given moment, a mirror can help. Similarly, it’s hard to know what our thoughts are doing unless we put them in a place we can reflect on them.

We can’t get the food out of our teeth if we don’t first know it’s there. We’ll struggle to think in the ways we want to—creatively, more constructively—if we don’t put our thoughts into a mirror too.

To think creatively is to consistently shift focus

Odds are, if you’re creatively stuck, you need to adjust your focus.

Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone focused on their phone, the television, or a good book?

This happened to me last night when asking my wife a question. I started engaging her only to realize she wasn’t hearing a word I was saying. I was standing directly in front of her asking her a question and somehow she wouldn’t acknowledge anything I was saying.

We all do this, become too focused on one thing to acknowledge everything else going on around us.

Focus is an immensely powerful thing when you stop to think about it. Our brains are capable of tuning-out almost anything in order to focus on one specific thing. When we’re laser-focused on a task it’s hard to see anything outside our purview.

When we’re laser-focused it’s hard to see things any other way than what’s directly in front of us. A tight focus means we believe we’ve got everything we need to do the task at hand and nothing should cause us to deviate from that task, we don’t need to let anything else in.

Whereas a relaxed focus means we’re letting in a lot of information, looking widely to see what’s out there and how it might impact the task at hand, at the cost of actually getting anything done.

When we consider the process of creativity, it becomes clear that we must consistently shift focus across a task in order to think in new and valuable ways.

At the beginning of creative work we need a very wide and relaxed focus, in order to surround ourselves with as much stimulus and possibility as we can.

As we progress and gather ideas or insights or tools we must begin to tighten our focus: to start looking at how all of what we’ve collected directly in front of us might go together. What can we do with the possibilities in front of us now?

We then have to switch our focus to be relaxed again and see the possibilities as more than their sum. We have to look at what we’ve begun constructing and ask: “What might be missing? What might I have overlooked? How do these go together and how are they each different?”

After doing so we must, again, bring our focus tighter to fine-tune what’s in front of us. To not distract ourselves with new possibilities but instead answer some of the questions we’ve raised.

In this way creativity is a lot like a puzzle.

We first have to make sure we have all of the available pieces out on the table, we then have to start putting some of them together to build a bigger picture, occasionally zooming-out to see if any of the pieces on the table match the specific part of the puzzle we’re working on now.

If you’re feeling creatively stuck or stifled: consider what type of focus you have been using and whether you should be constraining your focus or relaxing it.

Taking the risky path leads to more ideas

To invoke a little creativity into anything we do, we simply need to add a bit of chaos.

A blank page represents order. It’s only when the chaos of color and strokes and texture are added that we begin to make art.

The idea that feels familiar or obvious is one of order and logic (that’s why it feels familiar). It’s when we add a touch of randomness, chaos, to the idea that it becomes something new and creative.

Predictable is order, unfamiliar is chaos. The light us order, shadow chaos. Routine is order, adventure is chaos.

Our brains like order far more than chaos. We use order to anticipate the future and in doing so preserve and comfort ourselves. What to wear tomorrow, how we’re going to represent ourselves in the big meeting, where to go for dinner. We are anticipatory animals because that’s what helps ensures we are safe and healthy and happy tomorrow, as well as a means for educating and preserving the next generation.

But creativity can’t exist in the world of order.

Creativity requires something unexpected and different, by definition. The sudden surprise of spilled paint, the road construction exposing us to a new way of getting where we’re going, the delight of a risky gamble paying off.

Chaos is why most people shy away from creativity rather than embrace it, it tends to threaten our notion of order and predictability.

A clean sheet of paper is easier to approach than one covered in colorful scribbles. Walking into a presentation you’ve prepared for is far easier to do than one you haven’t prepared at all for. But the safety and comfort of each also means we might be missing out on a better opportunity.

The road we can see clearly ahead appears much safer and reliable than the one we can’t see. We know what we’re going to get from the clear path, while the dark one is a risk.

Of course maybe the route we can’t see clearly down is also the one that’s quickest and with better scenery. Maybe it’s the path we should be taking after-all, we don’t know unless we’re brave enough to take it.

That’s creativity: taking the risky path because we believe it provides more than the clear one, simply by being unknown.