If you want insights, expand your focus

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Focus is a funny thing.

When we’re focused – visually or mentally – we see exactly what’s important: the road ahead of us, the words we’re typing out, how a bent bristle of a paintbrush skews the stroke, where our ideas may fall short, and so on.

Focus allows us to be efficient, to clearly see what it is we’re doing and preventing any distractions from getting the better of us when what matters most is right in front of us.

But for creativity focus can be a problem, particularly during the early stages of a creative project, like brainstorming or merely day dreaming.

I often encounter creatives – whether in teams or on their own – who are stumbling to come up with any unique ideas simply because they’re too focused. Once the focus is set in our minds, it’s hard to break free. The focus point becomes familiar and safe. Great for productivity, terrible for insights.

This is the symptom of the poet who picks a topic for his latest work yet fails to notice the captivating prose that could take shape if he were to simply step back, mentally, from it. It’s the painter who doesn’t see how the space outside of her canvas could impact her work just as much as the canvas itself does. Or the creative team who is so centralized on ideas about customer service that they fail to explore how cutting their own company costs could alleviate support constraints.

Even more surprising: knowing that our focus is a hinderance to creativity, we still fail to expand it, to shift our vision, to explore the unknown unknowns.

Why? Fear is, again, the likely culprit. Think about it in your own creative career.

Exploring the unknowns, the unrelated, the “out theres” is risky. Expanding your focus to explore completely unrelated concepts seems naturally like working in the wrong direction. It feels like it would be a waste of time.

And yet, creativity is all about connections, about finding a link between what feels wrong and what we know is right. It’s about stepping completely away from what it is we’re trying to do – whether that’s painting a masterpiece, writing a best-seller, or finding ways for a business to innovative – and finding a way to do all of that anyway, in an unrelated way.

But (and this is a huge “but”) because so many creatives and businesses and even very brilliant thinkers are so focused and so afraid to look in places that don’t feel right, that’s where the most value is going to come from!

Expanding your focus to include areas far out in left-field enables you to see the ideas nobody else can see, because they are too busy focusing on their small area of safety.

Consider Steve Jobs deciding to remove nearly every button from MP3 players and mobile phones in order to create the iPod and iPhone. Or what about TOMS remarkably successful business model of giving away a free pair of shoes with each pair that’s purchased? Then there’s rapper JAY Z’s six hour performance of – get this – one song, repeated non-stop in a New York art gallery.

All of these things seem completely counter-intuitive, against the grain, as though they were pulled out of thin air. And they were, in a way, because that’s where creativity thrives.

If you really want to be really creative: change your focus, look way, way, way beyond where it is you think you should be looking. You’re going to find something unexpected out there, but you first have to look.