problem solving

Can you be a creative thinker without being a problem solver?

What does it mean to be a creative thinker but not a problem solver?

Someone who solves problems is just that: a person who solves problems. To be a creative thinker is someone who thinks creatively, but what exactly does that mean?

The definition of creativity is a bit fuzzy, even for experts who study the subject. What is generally considered as “creative” are ideas which are both novel and useful.

Imagining a way to toast bread until it’s burnt to the point it disintegrates is a pretty unique idea, but not a very useful one. Likewise, coming up with an idea on how to use a gasoline engine to propel a vehicle forward is useful but not so much unique. For an idea to be truly creative it must be both unique and valuable.

By this definition of creativity you cannot really be a creative thinker unless you’re also solving a problem; an idea isn’t truly creative unless it’s valuable, which is another way of saying it solves some problem.

However, that doesn’t mean all creative thinkers necessarily start their thinking by identifying a problem to be solved. In many cases a creative idea comes as a result of an accident, an observation, or happenstance. But in each instance the person coming up with the idea is both solving a problem (valuable) and coming up with something novel (something nobody else in their “world” has come up with).

That is to say: it absolutely is possible to come up with a creative idea without explicitly thinking of problem. But in generating a creative idea you’ll be solving some type of problem.

You can be a problem solver without thinking creatively (a solution to the problem being solved may already be in existence). You can’t be a creative thinker without being a problem solver (being capable of coming up with ideas that are both unique and valuable).

The trick is to consistently be generating ideas that are unique and/or valuable. Those ideas don't necessarily need to solve a large or immediate problem. As Clayton Christensen writes in his book Competing Against Luck:

Even if a theory doesn’t apply to some particular application, it’s still valuable because knowing when a particular theory doesn’t help explain something will allow you to turn to others to find better answers."

How jumping between projects provokes creativity

Alternating your time between two or more creative projects will definitely help your subconscious thinking on each of them!

Your brain is a magical box where once you put things into it and shake it around a bit you’ll be surprised at what comes out. Even if you’re not actively thinking about what you’ve put into it.

But wait a minute: aren’t YOU your brain?

How is it possible that your brain can possibly work on things without you consciously being aware it? What the hell is going on inside the brain to make thinking about something without actually thinking about it possible?

It turns out our brains are more than what we know them to be, or can even understand.

The brain is incredibly complex, almost unfathomably so. We don’t really know how exactly it works and shapes itself. We only know that the brain consists of millions of little biological connections that use biochemicals and electricity to interpret and give meaning to otherwise meaningless things. It’s theorized that more than 200 billion bits of information are processed in the brain every second.

That’s really all we know!

As David Eagleman states in his book Incognito:

“We are influenced by drives to which we have little access, and which we never would have believed had not the statistics laid them bare.”

When we ask questions about how the brain works or why certain things yield certain results, we’re really just saying: “We’ve seen this thing happen a few times before and it seems to make sense, so like physics: this must be how it works.”

So if we ask: does working on multiple, separate things at the same time benefit the work? We must look toward what we see out in the world relevant to this question.

Anecdotally we can say yes, jumping around on different projects benefits the work we do and the likelihood of a creative result. Taking a break to work on something else can help us avoid fixating on existing solutions. Albert Einstein is (not so) famously known for taking breaks from his scientific discoveries to practice the violin. Elon Musk has been busy not only inventing revolutionary space rockets over the past few years, but he’s also been working to innovate on battery cells, solar energy, and electronic vehicles.

We also see evidence of multiple, simultaneous endeavors being beneficial in lab studies. We’ve tapped into a better understanding how periods of cognitive incubation lead to insights. Research has found that setting unique goals for multiple tasks and jumping between each of them yields more creative output.

But how does this all happen without us knowing exactly? How can we solve problems without actually thinking about them?

The same questions could be asked about basic functions: how do we know to breathe when we’re asleep? How does our heart maintain a healthy beat when we go for a run? Why does our knee bounce when we’re anxious? How is it that I can safely commute home from work without really paying much attention?

That’s (partially) just the magic of the brain.

The answer as to why this all happens is, unfortunately: it just does. We aren’t completely certain how, but anecdotally and in labs it seems that working on one or two passions at the same time often yields benefits.

In creative circles this is known as incubation, the second stage of the idealized four or five stages of creativity (depending on who you ask: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation).

Incubation is when an idea is able to sit in your mind without being tampered with. It means taking a break from your homework to go for a walk, or instead of working on an assignment at work focusing on a hobby, or (in this case) jumping from one project to another one. We can assume that these things all work because when working on any one thing for a given amount of time will stress out the parts of the brain dealing with it.

It’s like when you constantly write or say the same word for five minutes, your brain burns out on it and suddenly the word doesn’t make sense. Working on the same specific problem or task for any amount of time means the neurons in your brain dealing with that work are firing constantly and other areas are unable to fire (which hinders our ability to “think differently”).

This also might help explain why our subconscious is still able to “work” on the task while our consciousness is elsewhere: the neural network has been activated so much that it’s still firing echoes, which may or may not interfere or combine with new stimulus for the other relevant task (or distraction).

The problem you may run into is knowing what to work on, when, and for how long.

Studies have shown that 90 minute chunks of focused work are beneficial, but again: this is anecdotal, so find your own balance. Most importantly is knowing what to work on when.

Your best bet is, again, to find what works for you, but in terms of research it looks like jumping around unrelated tasks is best. So if you’re working on a logical, pragmatic problem where you know solution exists but you have to seek it out, consider jumping to a more creative or artistic problem where you can spend a chunk of time doing more exploratory and not-so-straightforward work.

The benefit should be clear: by jumping around different projects types you open yourself up to different modes of thinking, which enables creativity.

If you’re stuck on a logical problem, the best way forward is to come up with a creative process. And if you’re stuck on a creative challenge, a switch to logical thinking may help expose you to what you’re cognitively blind to.

How most problems are not like math problems

When it comes to math equations, there are defined solutions to a problem which are always right.

If you add two and two together you will, most certainly, get the solution four. You don’t have to worry too much about attempting to find any different solution, because the existing one has been determined for you by mathematical experts. In math, there are simple, straight‒forward solutions that don’t require much creative thinking to discover.

On the other hand: organizing your closet, driving to school or work, and negotiating, all have a nearly infinite number of solutions.

You can find dozens, if not thousands, of ways to organize your closet, to drive to wherever it is you need to go, and to negotiate. There isn’t always a best way to find the solution to these situations. You can try one method of approach to most of these situations and, even if you find a solution that works, you can still try a different way repeatedly.

There are quite a few things in life that can be creatively pursued like this, with a seemingly infinite number of possible solutions.

Yet, thanks to a psychological issue known as fixation, we tend to approach most of our daily activities like a math problem: thinking there’s just one right solution that should work.

What happens is that we find ourselves often doing the same things – staring at an unfinished assignment, or repeating ourselves in an argument, or pressing the same buttons on a difficult video game – and we get stuck, the solution never comes, even though we feel as though it should.

The solution to fixating like this is to realize that the solution we think should work isn’t as defined as that of a math equation. In reality, there are many possible solutions for what we’re trying to do. We simply need to be open to discovering what those solutions are. That’s what creativity is for.

So, today, try something new with the situations you find yourself in.

Not only will doing so help you understand that there are a lot of potential solutions to the problems you face, you may actually discover that what you’ve been doing all along isn’t the easiest or most convenient or most fulfilling way to do it anyway.

Math dances illustration by Dylan Ng.