Discover the obscure through attention and curiosity

To be creative we must develop our ability to see what’s not immediately clear to us.

Creativity is being able to make connections between concepts, in an effort to generate entirely new ones. But sometimes the connection that needs to be made is the one we can’t readily see (figurateively and, in some cases, literally). How can we possibly come up with ideas if we can’t see half the pieces required to form them? Creativity may be about connecting things, but part of that process is uncovering the possible connections in the first place.

If you were to sit down with me and ask what one thing I would recommend you do in order to increase your creative potential, I would tell you, without skipping a beat: develop your ability to discover the obscure.

This is the one skill I think the truly creative individuals are capable of doing more so than anyone else. The keyword here is: skill. Being able to dig out previously undiscovered concepts is a skill anyone can develop.

It should come as no surprise why this is the case. Creativity becomes a valuable way of thinking only in that it allows us to explore the unexplored, to see the unseen, to find insights where nobody has before.

In her book, Willful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan writes on this point:

“We can’t notice and know everything: the cognitive limits of our brain simply won’t let us. That means we have to filter or edit what we take in. So what we choose to let through and to leave out is crucial.”

This is the point that matters most for our exploration into what it means to think more creatively. Our “blindness” to ideas, and entire concepts within the world around us, stems from our experiences and the things we choose to draw our attention toward.

To develop the skill of uncovering the obscure, we must overcome our conscious and subconscious biases that keep our mind’s eye focused on everything but what we may need to be looking at.

At the heart of the skill are two critical things: awareness and curiosity. If you’re just highly aware, you are only looking at what’s obvious. If you’re only passionately curious, you’re likely only aware of what’s familiar or comfortable.

We must seek out the peculiarities of new and interesting things. What makes this so difficult to do is that interesting things are rarely uncovered without encountering a few uninteresting things along the way.

Slogging through dull or boring ideas or sources of inspiration makes the search daunting, but there is hope!

How do you know that you don’t like the genres books that seem to be boring to you, unless you pick one or two up to read?

So one step to uncovering the obscure is in expanding our interests and using a keen awareness paired with a powerful curiosity. Explore new things, pick up books and read them at random, travel to new places (near or far), speak with strangers, do the things that will readily expand your awareness of what’s possible.

But there’s another step to seeing the at-once un-obvious that I like to use every day. I’ve found it’s a great way to more quickly discover the previously undiscoveredpursuing the obscure about otherwise unobscured things.

Changing your perspective (both literally and figuratively) is the easiest way to do this.

What better way to uncover the obscure than by asking obscure questions? Or by trying to see familiar things from obscure perspectives?

Questions with no immediate or obvious answer, asked about things that we typically find to be obvious or commonplace. Or flipping our heads upside-down to see things how others may not.

Both of these approaches often yield dull results, but on the occassion they lead to new insights or a further curiosity to explore, they are worth whatever time we can invest in them.

Whenever I find myself creatively stumped, or idly spending my time, I’ll look around me and start to apply these approaches to thinking. I’ll wonder what the objects immediately around me remind me of, or how adding or removing one small attribute of them can make them appear or act like something else.

What would it be like to temporarily disable gravity so we had to walk and work along the ceiling, rather than the floor, of the room? What similarities does my laptop computer have with the desk, and how do those similarities influence my work without me even realizing it? How would I work differently if I had to do my job using only large markers and small sticky notes?

These questions seem silly at first, but that’s exactly why they work for helping uncover new possibilities: they point us in a direction we were blinded to in the first place.

To better think creatively, start working on building the skill of discovering the obscure, by tuning your attention and curiosity to the world around you.

Photo by Chris Goldberg.