Picture in your mind a paperclip. Any typical, run-of-the-mill, office paperclip will do.
Now forget everything you know about paperclips and list as many alternative uses for this object as possible.
You will see that a paperclip could actually be many things… like a ruler. My computer monitor measures 9 paper clips high by 12 paper clips wide. If I needed to draw a small, straight line, I could use the edge of a paperclip in a pinch. And if you’ve worked with computer hardware, you know that a paperclip is actually an indispensable multi-tool.
This is called the Alternative Uses Test. Most people can think of 10–15 alternative uses for an object. Geniuses at this can think of 100 or more.
As kids, we are all creative geniuses.
98% of kindergarteners score at the genius level on divergent thinking, which is the kind of thinking that the Alternative Uses Test is designed to measure. However, as we get older something happens and our capacity for divergent thinking largely deteriorates.
Ingenuity goes beyond just divergent thinking however.
Think about the mental process that goes on when MacGyver does one of his famous MacGyverisms. For that kind of ingenuity we will find that there are three ingredients: seeing beyond the object; using constraints as a jumping-off point, not a roadblock; the Eureka moment.
See beyond the object
The cognitive bias that limits us to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used is called, functional fixedness, and it gets worse as we get older.
The reason for this has to do with how we learn. We are incredibly fast at it. Our formative school years are spent learning what took humans the past 200,000 years to learn.
We also have to learn to interact with a world that is not of our making, but made by countless others in a time span that dwarfs our entire lifetime.
In order to learn at this pace, a lot of things need be inferred and taken on faith.
Someone tells us that a paperclip is used to clip paper together and we don’t waste any more time thinking on it. We move on and learn other things. It is to our evolutionary advantage to learn this quickly, but we also need to learn to keep our minds open and not locked into these assumptions.
IQ is a measurement of the kind of learning we typically do in school. Note that IQ does not measure creativity. In fact, it has been observed that there is an inverse relationship between IQ and creativity.
Maybe it is school learning that erases our capacity for divergent thinking. After all, it is school testing that drills into us that there is only one correct solution for any given problem.
This doesn’t have to be the case. There is room for us all to become more like MacGyver in our everyday lives.
It helps to look at the world like we did when we were children, free of prejudices, judgement and preconceived notions. This is what enables us to see beyond the object.
Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Stay open to possibilities. Forget what you know. And open your mind.
Constraints are a jumping-off point, not a roadblock
It’s well documented that having constraints is actually a boon to your creativity. You might think that limitless freedom to create something would be an artist’s dream, but for many it stirs up a fear of the blank canvas.
I experienced this myself. When I was young, I had earned the reputation as “a really good drawer.” This meant other kids would come up and enthusiastically ask me to “draw something!” The result was usually that I couldn’t think of a single thing to draw, so I would try to brush them off or change the subject.
How strange was it that the very thing that should open the door to creativity, actually caused me anxiety instead? The trick I found was, if there are no constraints, make some up!
Restrictions, constraints, rules, boundaries, stipulations… they all aid our creativity and ingenuity.
David Sturt gives a great explanation on the role of constraints:
Constraints give us a starting point and some building blocks to work with—a problem to solve, an innovative twist to be revealed, or a person to please. And, it doesn’t matter how tightly constrained we feel. The world is filled with amazing possibilities derived from limited resources and elements. Consider the fact that every color in nature comes from just red, yellow and blue. Yet, we can mix them together in millions of combinations. Every pop song, symphony, jingle, ditty, and aria in the Western World starts with just twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Everything on the planet, including each of us, is made up of just 118 known chemical elements. Constraints? Absolutely, But they’re a starting point for seemingly endless creativity and possibility.
Problems are another type of constraint. We can choose to view problems as roadblocks that stop our progress, or we can choose to view problems as opportunities. The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity.
So, the next time you find yourself facing a challenge or find obstacles in your path, ask yourself… What would MacGyver do?
The Eureka moment
2,200 years ago, King Hiero commissioned a golden crown in honor of the gods. He gave a jeweler a bar of gold to use, and the jeweler returned it as a fine, wreathen crown.
However, King Hiero suspected the jeweler of substituting a cheaper metal inside the crown and pocketing the remaining gold. There was no way to confirm his suspicions without ruining the crown, so he called on mathematician, engineer and inventor… Archimedes.
Archimedes struggled to find a solution to the king’s problem. Finally, one day as he submerged himself into his bath, he noted how the water level in the tub rose. Like a flash, it hit him! He could use water displacement to detect the forgery. Archimedes sprang from his bath elated and ran naked through the streets proclaiming, “Eureka!” — I have found it.
The Eureka moment is that flash of insight that comes seemingly out of nowhere as a solution to something you have been puzzling over. It’s about as mystical as any part of the creative process gets.
It can’t be forced, but there are some things that might improve your chances of having one:
1. Do something different. When we have hit a roadblock, we tend to stay focused on the roadblock. This is detrimental when we need something that will deliver a breakthrough instead. Fixating on the problem only keeps you stuck on the problem. Change gears and do something else, preferably…
2. Do something monotonous. Ever notice that your best ideas come to you in the shower? You are not alone. Archimedes also had his breakthrough in the bath. I tend to get my best ideas while driving long distance. It is still a mystery as to why, but breakthroughs tend to happen when you are doing the most boring tasks.
3. Do nothing. On the show, Mad Men, Don Draper is the brilliant creative director who delivers the ideas behind multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. In one scene, Roger Sterling, partner at the firm, says to Don “I’ll never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”
This is bad news if you have bought into the obsession our culture has with busyness. Sometimes there is nothing to do except lay back and wait for the idea to hit you.
May the Ingenuity be with you…
Of the different kinds of creativity, ingenuity seems to be highly reliant on experience and expertise. Again, look at MacGyver… his creativity doesn’t come from inborn talent or from dedicated practice, it comes from his training as a scientist and a special agent.
You need to harness the open-mindedness you had as a child, but at the same time bring the knowledge and expertise you have as an adult. After combining these two things you let them simmer, and at last you will have a Eureka moment.
There you have it, the key to your ingenuity.
Top photo licensed through Creative Commons. Original: https://flic.kr/p/4sy8if