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?

Creativity often comes from discomfort


Creativity comes to those who want or need it. Those who are hungry for change, something different, a shake up.

Comfort is debilitating when it comes to creative thinking. The act of creativity thrives in moments of tension, when there is struggle there is an opening for creativity.

You cannot merely will creativity. You cannot "try harder" to cause it to occur. It requires a gap, some type of discomfort, or another type of provocation to occur.

Consider your appetite for food. It’s hard to see the appeal of food when you’ve just eaten a large meal. No matter how much you might enjoy food, it can be hard to stomach another bite after you’ve over indulged. The appeal of a really good meal is partially in the hunger for it. The same is true of creativity.

If you don’t see a need to break from routine or change your thinking, the notion of creativity will not only seem unappealing, it will become difficult to realize. Why question the status quo if it’s giving you what you want? Why push boundaries if their confines are comfortable? Even if you don’t know things could be better, it’s easy to convince yourself good enough is... well, good enough.

It’s those who feel an itch to change things in their life, those who are unsatisfied with their work or processes or other aspects of life are more likely to experience a creative breakthrough. The ones who dare to look out and ask: “What if this were different?” are the ones who often make it so.

We call this perspective “openness to new experiences” and it’s one of the primary attributes that determine whether or not someone is creative. Associate director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, Magdalena G. Grohman believes openness to experiences is the single most defining trait that makes creative success possible.

This helps explain why boredom is so valuable to creativity: it instigates exploration, it creates an opening for novelty. It also explains why those who travel or read diverse content and expose themselves to different ways of thinking are the ones who tend to produce more creative ideas and work.

Perhaps one reason some of the most creative artists and musicians in history are also the most troubled: the struggle they encounter in life is what pushes them to try new and different things.

If you want to be more creative, embrace the uncomfortable feeling brought about by peeking outside your routine and asking: “What else is out there?”

What we give up by being creative

There’s a high cost to being a maker or creative.

Of course I’m talking about the cost of diving into the unknown, of taking something comfortable or familiar and throwing it away.

To create is to destroy: the empty canvas, the blank page, the solid stone, or perception or even beliefs. The pursuit of new and different requires us to abandon—at least temporarily—the old and familiar.

What happens when the new isn’t as good or reliable as the old? What do we do when what we create doesn’t feel worthy of the destruction? How do we know when we’ve succeeded or fulfilled our purpose as a creative? How do we know when more (or better) ideas and projects on the horizon, or if we’ve reached our peak?

I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that the adventure into figuring out the answers for yourself is almost always worthwhile.

The reality is that the journey of a creative—of someone who imagines an alternate way forward or who asks what might happen when something gets made—is one fraught with uncertainty, dead ends, and many nights of discouraged restlessness.

When you begin to embrace curiosity and creation, when you open yourself to newness, you will never be the same. It’s like walking through a door you can’t go back through. Once you’re through, you’ll see things or feel things or have things you didn’t before.

But what we trade-off for all this is something we can’t get any other way: a different tomorrow. Something tangible that wasn’t there yesterday. A new book or blog post. A sculpture. A photograph or video, or conference, or document that proves “I was here, I made this.” A different perspective, or a more clarified one. A more vivid idea of what’s possible or why things are the way they are.

Even when the work isn’t up to snuff—when what we make doesn’t match what was in our head, of compared to what someone else made before us—we still learn, we still will have made something that wasn’t there yesterday.

And the result of any creative endeavor is this: a guiding light or inspiration to others, and a reminder for ourselves. A difference big or small in the way you think or feel or see. And that difference is what creativity is all about. Not accepting the status quo for what it is. Not looking around you and believing it doesn’t get better. We must appreciate everything around us that is beautiful and unique and valuable, but we must also remember that what often makes those things so is that they are impermanent.

There’s always the great unknown just around the corner. And when we go out to face it we give up a lot, but gain a lot too.

The creative path is the one discovered along the way

What often differentiates the artist and designer from the analytical thinker or engineer is their ability to think through their work as they're working on it.

The analytical thinker is analyzing information before anything's begun, then re-assessing after-the-fact. The engineer creates a blueprint, prepares resources based on the blueprint, then builds the bridge to spec. There isn't much wiggle room for sudden or dramatic change when you're in the middle of constructing a bridge, so the plans get made and the work gets done according to the plan.

But for artists or creatives, the work is constantly evolving, always in a state of change. There is still planning and reflection, but it's more fluid and the work influences the plan just as much as the plan influences the work.

I was recently reminded of this point when reading John Maeda's Redesigning Leadership. John puts the point elegantly:

"Artists don’t distinguish between the act of making something and the act of thinking about it—thinking and making evolve together in an emergent, concurrent fashion. As a result, when approaching a project, an artist often doesn’t seem to plan it out. She just goes ahead and begins, all the while collecting data that inform how she will continue.
A large part of what drives [the artist’s] confidence is her faith in her ability to course correct and improvise as she goes."

Making matters for the artist because it’s how she learns. She could spend a lot of time up-front doing what analysts, engineers, and managers do: addressing what’s known, diving into existing variables, and gambling on the outcome or marching forward over—or under—prepared. Or she can jump into the work and rely on her ability to adapt and change course as she goes.

One approach isn’t any better than the other for anything in particular, but the latter method—of making and thinking along the way—allows for more creative exploration by default.

By making and allowing yourself to adapt as you go, you free yourself up to do just that: to make things up as you go. To change course, alter the goal, modify the expected outcome, throw white all over the canvas and start again. When you set things like vision and goals up-front you limit what’s possible. Vision and goals are you saying you know where it is you want to go, but creativity is about just starting and figuring out where it is you're going by getting there.

Two methods for asking better questions

A favorite quote of mine from Socrates goes: “Understanding a question is half an answer.”

Famous American inventor William Edwards Deming echoed Socrates by stating: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.”

The importance of both these quotes cannot be overstated, however both what Socrates and Deming’s say can easily be misunderstood.

Undoubtedly asking and exploring many questions is beneficial, as doing so is a core attribute of creative problem solving. As Einstein famously said: “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious.” To be curious is to ask many questions, but what these quotes are undoubtedly hinting at is the value of asking and understanding the right questions. It’s not enough to simply be curious and ask many questions.

What matters is being able to understand the questions you’re asking and learning from them regardless of their answer or outcome.

What does it mean to ask the right question? What makes one question better than another? How do you start to understand the questions you ask?

First, you must pursue investigative questions, not factual ones. In his book Beyond the Obvious, Phil McKinney explains the difference between these two common types of questions can quickly end, or empower, your pursuit of new ideas or understanding.

McKinney writes: “By definition, a divergent question means that there is more than one correct answer (unlike factual questions). It cannot be answered with one phone call, or a quick check at some stats or figures, and forces us to investigate all of the possibilities.” To invoke creativity you should seek to ask questions with no common, quick-to-address answers; questions which will allow our thinking to diverge rather than converge. The benefit of focusing on investigative questions is their ability to help connect ideas which you may not first perceive as having been connected, rather than mere information gathering.

The next thing you must do to ask better questions is think about the attributes of the questions themselves. Getting meta is valuable for understanding the possible answers you might uncover.

Asking why the sky is blue is different than asking why we perceive the sky to be blue. But why? In one question the emphasis is on the science of our atmosphere, while the other focuses on the human body. But how often do we consider these types of attributes within the questions we ask?

When you’re asking a question, don’t merely ask it, ask what you’re asking and break down each component of the question in order to either invoke other questions or to better understand the question you’re already looking at.

One way to break questions down is to ask additional questions about the questions you ask.

I typically do this by addressing the five Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Who is this question for and who does it matter to? What is this question trying to answer, what might it be overlooking? Where does this question commonly occur? Is there anything I might learn from looking at where the question is asked? When does this question come up? Was there a certain prompt which influenced it over another possible question? Why does this question matter to begin with? Why not the opposite of this question?

The more you look into the very questions you find yourself asking, the more you’ll begin to understand them. And the more you understand the questions you find yourself asking—including the way you ask them and the structure that makes them up—the more you are to ask better questions in order to undercover new ideas, new ways of thinking, and ultimately creativity.