Ever wished that you had more hours in the day or days in the week? Or perhaps wanted a quick and easy approach to crack those things that have been sitting in your “too difficult” pile? Over the past 7-10 years since I have been researching and applying creativity and entrepreneurship at work, these are some of the frustrations that busy leaders talk about most. Many of my corporate clients want to innovate and grow, but are so busy keeping the day-to-day business going that planning, creativity and getting ahead of the curve just doesn’t get done in the way that my clients would like. We are all are trying to achieve more, often with fewer or limited resources. So, this got me thinking…
Imagine that we might be using our brains in the same way that lots of us use our mobile phones or computers. No, I don’t mean looking at them or fiddling with them every few seconds, or enjoying that dopamine burst as we hear the satisfying ping of a new email or WhatsApp message coming in. I’m coming at this from the perspective of unused potential.
Statista, the Statistics Portal, reported last month (Oct 2016) that there are 2.6 billion smartphone users in the world. Now, I know that many people are a lot more techy than I am. I also know that I’m not the least techy person I know. Finally, I know that I do not use my smart phone to anything like its full functionality potential. Which means that there are probably lots of things I could be doing with my phone to save me time, effort, increase my creativity and productivity and so on. Imagine that under-utilisation multiplied by 2.6 billion! Of course, if we did use our smart phones to their utmost potential, we would be on the things even more than we are now, so perhaps not such a good idea. But imagine if we were to get an extra 5 or 10% of functionality value from our investment – that would be worth having.
I think we underutilise the capacity and capability of our brains both at home and at work, because, perhaps like those apps or functions on our phones that we just don’t use because we aren’t familiar with them, or think we don’t need, we don’t really think about how to get the most from them.
Scientists used to think that brainpower is pretty much fixed – that we have what we have, and that’s it. Today though, research is showing more and more just how much we still don’t yet know about how and why our brains do what they do. What we have uncovered, however, is the concept of plasticity, meaning that we can expand our thinking by exposing ourselves to new challenges, environments, experiences and so on to form new connections between neurons and develop our brainpower. But with the busy-ness of the day-to-day at work, quite often our brains settle for the path of least resistance and stick to the same old ways – or ‘memes’ – that have worked for us in the past. So we use tried and tested approaches and our brains use the well-trodden tracks they are used to following. A literal rut.
The limitation with this, though, is, as Heraclitus put it: no-one “ever steps in the same river twice”. That is to say, everything is always changing. The events of today may look and feel similar to what we have experienced before, but they are never exactly the same because the time, people, situation have all changed. Therefore to completely rely on tried and tested thinking too often may be confining and lead to diminishing returns.
The challenge as I have observed it in organisations is not always just about being too busy or perceived lack of time. Sometimes busy-ness is a cover for fear of failure, for not wanting to take a risk and get things wrong. And to think differently and try fresh ways of doing things involves an element of risk.
We can boost our brainpower, though, by changing our perspective and mindset when it comes to getting things wrong. And, just for clarity, there are some areas of work that should not be experimented with. I wouldn’t want the pilot of a plane that I’m on to get all creative with how she carries out a standard landing, for instance (but in an emergency situation I may be grateful for it – remember Sully’s ‘miracle’ landing on the Hudson River?
Carol Dweck has done some exceptional work to research how mindset affects success, shown on her website mindsetonline. She has found that striving for perfection, flawlessness and to be seen to right all the time measurably limits individual success. The reason? Because people with this mindset, which Dweck describes as ‘fixed’, would rather not try at all than risk failure. They constrain themselves. Individuals with a ‘growth’ mindset, though, see trying new things as a learning opportunity. They don’t take failure personally and use it to get closer to their goal. Edison is the classic example of someone with the growth mindset. He is said to have made 10,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the lightbulb, being quoted as saying
I have not failed. I have just found 9,999 ways that do not work.
So we’ve got as far as saying that we can boost our brainpower through:
1. Generating new connections and getting our neurons firing through fresh experiences, challenges and environments.
2. Cultivating a growth mindset that is open to learning and is undeterred by things not always going right first time.
The third area that we can proactively develop is to become aware of out thinking preferences and make sure we use both the analytical and creative functions of our brain. The brain as I’m sure you’re aware is often described as having two halves – the left, which is rational, logical and analytical and the right which is imaginative, creative and more lateral. The Business Brain Book by Jan-Willem van den Brandhof is well worth a read if you’d like to explore this some more. Many of history’s great thinkers, such as Einstein and Da Vinci, were great because they used their imagination (right side) to dream of possibilities and their analytical mind (left side) to apply their knowledge and reasoned thinking to generate solutions and insight. That is, they used whole brain thinking. For instance, Einstein wrote about how imagined chasing after a beam of light as a thought experiment in his Autobiographical Notes. He combined his imagination of waveforms with the rationale of physics and mathematics to create new thinking about space and time.
Imagine using more of our thinking potential every day, leveraging our growth mindset to seek fresh experiences and make new connections. We could conceive of more, novel possibilities and combine our creativity and logic to make the most of them and break new ground!