We all have lots of great ideas. As human beings, I believe that we are all creative – in different ways, of course, but we all have the extraordinary capacity for reason. Nature bestowed human begins with an incredible ability to mimic and learn and grow.
As children, we have no filter. So, as part of the learning and growing process, we are encouraged to experiment, try new things, expand our horizons. We don’t know what not to do – we don’t know what is right or wrong, so we try, fail, and learn.
Once we get older and start to master the world around us, we begin to filter ourselves. Sometimes we do it because we don’t want to look bad, sometimes we worry about failure, sometimes we are just afraid of what will happen if we do something. When we were kids, we didn’t know any better – we had beginners’ minds and just did things, not knowing the consequences.
As we get older, we learn that we can’t do everything anymore. We need to know to be tactful. We learn not to hurt other people’s feelings. We get put in boxes, either by ourselves or our surroundings; parents, friends, and family mold us into shape. According to mimetic theory, we watch what other people do and have and then emulate them. This is something that all humans do – we need to do this to grow and become fully human. Observing other humans helps us to be human.
As we get older and add more and more filters to our lives, we tend to forget the freedom of being a child. Our minds, once fully open, start to close. We filter ourselves and our ideas. We narrow our thinking to conform and align with our friends, family, school, and workplace.
We are told that “the nail that sticks out is the first to be hammered down.” So sit down, shut up and do your job.
As innovators, this goes against our grain. We don’t want to sit down and shut up – we want to help those around us to change and grow. To embrace change and the future. To go beyond where we are right now.
But how do we do this? How can we innovate and grow if we exist in a restrictive environment? How can we flourish if we are stuck?
We find a clue in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. In this book, Frankl tells his story of surviving a concentration camp and how this experience led to his theory on the importance of meaning in one’s life. The book is a compelling read – here we have a prisoner in a concentration camp, stripped of everything. He has no material possessions left; he is constantly submerged in a horrific environment. He has nothing.
Or does he? Even though his surroundings are bleak, he still can think, imagine, to dream. Even with nothing, he can still use his mind to create. To grow. He even used his time in the camp to create a new branch of psychology and therapy.
He was in a concentration camp and was able to create. Bereft of external tools to help him create, he created in his mind. Once he was released, he was able to expand upon what he created in the camp. Even with nothing he could create. And so can we.
Our situations are nowhere near as bad as his was. But we still feel constricted and restrained by our environment. In the same way, we learn to look inward and create. Luckily, we can use tools to extract our ideas and do something with them.
For example, let’s say that you have some great ideas for creating new products within your organization, but you know that the ideas will fall on deaf ears. So get them out there anyway – have an ideation session with yourself – write down as many ideas as possible. Have a personal brainstorming session and bring those ideas all out of the paper of postits. Stay after work and attack a whiteboard with gusto. Like Frankl, we may be constrained by our surroundings, but nothing is stopping us from thinking and dreaming.
Get those ideas out of your brain onto paper or a whiteboard. Then step back and look at them. Read them. Write down new ideas that are triggered by the ideas you see. Even if your organization might not be interested in what you are writing down right now, it will help get them out of your head and into the external world. Seeing your ideas on the board will trigger new ideas and new thinking.
You might be saying: what’s the point? Sure, I can get those ideas out, but nothing will ever happen with them. Possibly. But it might just be possible that as part of the exercise, you can unleash the beginner’s mind that you had as a kid. That you can lift some of the filters governing your thinking. That you might be able to generate some supremely innovative new ideas. And if these ideas won’t fit your current company, it may trigger your desire to try them elsewhere. Or start your own company.
We all sometimes feel that we get stuck. That we are in a place where we can no longer move. We are, like Frankl, trapped in prison, but its a prison of our mind. He had no recourse to do anything different. But we do. We have choices.
If you think about it, we have near-infinite choices. We can do whatever we want. Yet, we think too small within our boundaries most of the time. So use this time to think beyond – to say what if – to remove the barriers – even if just in your mind – to think the unthinkable.
Once you do this, you may be able to free your mind truly.