Reading is a passion of mine, a time I can immerse in and explore learning across a wide spectrum of topics. When a common concept unexpectedly emerges within a series of various readings, I am blessed with the wonderful feelings of serendipity and deeper meaning. Having enjoyed Charles’ Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, I was excited to hear of the release of and looked forward to reading his latest book, Smarter, Faster, Better. However what I did not expect was a feeling of serendipity to emerge in a chapter on the making of Frozen.
Over the past months my reading includes books on learning and innovation, seeking to advance my ability to coach others in developing thought-provoking concepts as points of view. A friend suggested exploring the subject of emergent learning, specifically by reading Why Greatness Cannot be Planned: The Myth of the Objective (Stanley and Lehman). The premise: while a goal to which a clear path is visible can be the objective for a plan, a different approach is required for a large, ambitious and ambiguous objective to which no clear path exists. Think of navigating a large maze or trying to cross a wide creek where the path is not known, each dead end you encounter being a learning of what doesn’t work. A large, ambitious and ambiguous objective requires multiple learnings, many not necessarily supporting the objective. Stanley and Lehman posit that innovation is found by following the interesting learnings, seeing these interesting learnings as stepping stones which might solve bottlenecks to a different objective. Stanley’s video below offers a more complete explanation.
While I thought reading Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing (Holmes) would help me explore balance in my preference for additional information, it added to Stanley’s concept of stepping stones that lead to innovation. Among the many topics Holmes explored, most insightful was the chapter exploring the journeys of Alexander Graham Bell and Elijah Gray in their quest resulting in the invention of the telephone. Gray and Bell independently sought to increase telegraph line capacity beyond then-current limitations four simultaneous messages, both pursuing harmonic sounds as a means to expand capacity. While the investor backing Bell was primarily interested in the telegraph, Bell was more interested following the experiments and learnings around transmitting voices. Though Gray also learned to send sound, his focus on telegraph signals prevented him from envisioning wider benefits from transmitting sound until he saw a demonstration of Bell’s “speaking telegraph”. Gray’s focus on his objective obscured his view to other possibilities that Bell found through pursuing his interesting learnings.
Using this example, Holmes introduces the work of Tony McCaffrey, a researcher in cognitive psychology focused on the field of creativity. McCaffrey believes most creative breakthroughs come through sideways thinking (analogies), where a dilemma one confronts one field is a variation of a dilemma in another field which has already been solved. By studying how those solutions work in the other field one can find a solution to the dilemma they face. McCaffrey suggests that almost all inventions come from this process, where an obscure feature of an object can be the launching point for building a solution on that feature. McCaffrey’s generic parts technique underlies his belief that anyone at any level can be taught to be more creative
This past week I dove into my copy of Smarter, Faster, Better. Focusing on personal productivity ideas, the first half of the book offered chapters on personal, motivation psychological safety in teams, cognitive tunnels, the power of mental models and smart goals, providing interesting supporting stories on these concepts which are part of Pariveda’s schools and culture. But the chapter on Frozen’s journey to the screen and the stories of obstacles overcome aligned Duhigg’s work with the concepts on innovations and creativity in the other books. In Duhigg’s words,
Creativity can’t be reduced to a formula. At its core, it needs novelty, surprise, and other elements that cannot be planned in advance to seem fresh and new. There is no checklist that, if followed, delivers innovation on demand. But the creative process is different. We can create the conditions that help creativity to flourish. We know, for example, that innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways. We know the odds of success go up when people with fresh, different perspectives, who have seen ideas in a variety of settings draw on the diversity within their heads.
Duhigg offers three pieces of advice for improving one’s creative process. First, by paying attention to how things make you think and feel and being sensitive to your experiences, you learn how to distinguish between clichés insights. Second, panic and stress is not a sign that things are falling apart but rather a condition to make you flexible enough to look at something new, pushing us to look at old ideas in a new way. Third, the sweet relief from a creative breakthrough can blind us to being self-critical and seeing even better alternatives. Duhigg sees a creativity as a process, and being a process open to anyone to explore and become better.
These books emphasize that struggling with creativity is extremely common, normal and most importantly can be overcome When exploring a large, ambitious and ambiguous objective, be open to the interesting learnings, see those as stepping stones to innovation that may not be your first objective, look at the learning with different perspectives, dive deep into your experiences to see how you feel to move past clichés to true learning, allow the stress to make you flexible in looking at your ideas in a new way, and always be self-critical enough to look beyond what you believe is creative.
Frozen Serendipity, an unexpected reading pleasure indeed.