Unexpected Creative Sources
Spending time to sit and think, or to take a walk, seems increasingly difficult in a society that prizes busyness and multi-tasking. In particular, for A-type go-getters, intentionally carving more time to think without doing several things at once can seem like “wasted time.”
But there’s another reason that giving yourself time to where your thoughts can wander is crucial: associative thinking.
I wrote about sparking your creative genius here, and how your brain’s default mode network lights up with activity when you are doing simple “automatic” tasks that allow your thoughts to wander.
After the article was posted, I received several emails from writers whose experiences validated that notion; writers mentioned how naps helped solve their writer’s block or how spending time on beaches shifted their thinking so much that they could barely write down the ideas that began flowing fast enough.
Associative thinking takes the creative flow to another level.
“Associative thinking,” according to Judah Pollack, “is responsible for our breakthroughs. It’s when you take two or more things that you would not normally put together and you realize they actually have a connection.”
He goes on to illustrate an example.
In 2006, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan was seeking a new CEO. They ended up hiring a former Vice President of the Ritz-Carlton hotels.
Why would a hospital hire someone who had run hotels?
Hospitals and hotels don’t seem related until you realize that both are in the business of taking care of people. In the case of hospitals, it would be patients and the patients’ loved ones.
The CEO, Gerard van Grinsven, brought hospitality ideas to the hospital.
For example, similar to a hotel, all of the hospital rooms were private: 1 patient per room. This led to less infection-spreading between patients, who otherwise would have shared rooms with one another.
Every room had a folding metal chair so the doctor could sit eye level with the patient. Malpractice suits decreased because patients felt a deeper connection with the doctor.
He also installed an organic garden, a classy café, a hair salon, a day spa, and many more “amenities.” The community would show up to the hospital even without any other reason other than to visit a farmer’s market every Wednesday or the atrium.
The ideas birthed from focusing on wellness and happiness was innovative. But this couldn’t have happened unless the hospital was willing to take a risk in associative thinking.
Being single-minded about task after task without allowing time for creative input won’t activate your default mode network to bake new, innovative ideas.
Another example of associative thinking Pollack cites is the Japanese bullet train. When the early models of these extremely fast trains caused issues when emerging from tunnels, such as sonic booms, the head engineer Eiji Nakatsu turned to associative thinking – from his bird watching days.
He remembered that the kingfisher bird dove into waters at high speeds without generating a huge splash. This was due mostly to the shape of its beak.
His team began studying the kingfisher and modeled the nose of the train after the bird’s beak. Immediately, the train’s new design reduced noise and even increased the speed of the train. This idea of using nature’s examples to solve human issues is called biomimicry.
Now imagine if Nakatsu had only approached the original train problem by staring at a math equation on his desk every day? Does this sound familiar to those of us that approach our screenplay’s obstacles with formulas and attempt to power through uninspired stories only to realize that every character, every story arc sounds the same?
Innovation will happen when we let our thoughts roam and connect two seemingly unrelated concepts. Staying “on task” is crucial when you need to focus on getting something done in a short amount of time. But if you don’t give yourself “permission” to be curious about the world around you, then you will miss out on associative thinking and perhaps creative breakthroughs in your work.
Questions? Comments? Write me at InkTipStoryPower (at) gmail dot com
Michael Kim has worked in every department at InkTip. He is now the VP of Product Development & Media. Besides associating random actors with each other, he likes trying every good burger in L.A., making music and browsing Netflix titles for 30 minutes before realizing he ran out of time to watch something.