IDEAS ARE STRANGE ANIMALS
Some of them pounce immediately, but others are shy, timid creatures. They hide in the undergrowth, watching with suspicion. Any sudden movement is apt to send them scurrying deep into the brambles. Never to be seen again.
When the ideas aren’t flowing, I find it helps to take your eye off the problem. Spend an hour or two hunting around. Get a general sense of the thing you’re trying to catch, but then put it in the back of your mind and go and do something else. Preferably something mindless, but productive. Sort your files. Clean your office. If you’re at home – do the ironing. Pretend not to notice the little eyes blinking in the dim peripheries of your mind.
While you do this, free from distraction your subconscious (your most powerful processor) will run the task in the background. There is no established time for this to take. There is no progress bar. You just need to have faith that it will happen.
But eventually, maybe an hour later, maybe the next day while you’re taking out the trash, you’ll turn around…
…and there it is.
WHY YOUR MIND GOES BLANK WHEN YOU TRY TO HAVE IDEAS.
Have you ever frozen when someone puts you on the spot and asks for an idea? Join the club. There was a time when I would turn to stone even when asked to write a simple farewell card at the office. And I was supposedly a person who was paid to have ideas!
Something about the expectant attention was very distracting and for some reason I just could not think when put under immediate pressure.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
For a long time I suspected this panic response had something to do with self-consciousness. However, it was not until I was asked by Nestle to help produce some videos for an early childhood development app that I discovered I was on the right track.
During the development of that content I was put in touch with a childhood education expert by the name of Gavin Keller. Though my research and my discussions with Gavin, I discovered that we essentially have two brains. We have a large, evolved brain on top and a smaller, primitive brain underneath.
The higher mind does the hardcore processing. It does all the creative stuff – the memory stuff, language, logic, problem-solving, etc. While the primitive brain is all about the basic things relating to our survival. Things like heart rate, breathing, digestion and that kind of stuff. I like to think of this as the troll brain. It is a little primate that belongs to a time when saber tooth tigers roamed the plains and we were either quick, or we were dead. It is the oldest and most powerful of our coping brain functions and it is much more impulse-driven. It responds to danger by hooting and screeching and jumping up and down.
When something triggers an alarm – such as a boss tapping her finger on the desk waiting for a reply – our first response is to retreat into this lower brain. Our higher mind literally switches off! Your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes faster. You have difficulty accessing memories, your capacity to use language is decreased. In this state you are much less likely to have insightful, eloquent ideas and much more likely to dissolve into a stammering, incoherent puddle.
The degree to which you will be affected by this is response depends a lot on your personality and what happened in your formative years. If you are a natural risk-taker, you won’t suffer as badly. If you grew up in a strict authoritarian environment, you may be more easily triggered.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
So can anything be done if you suffer from these momentary lapses in talent? The answer is yes, but it takes time and practice. Essentially, you need to train your brain out of this response.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is about observing the way our brain behaves and responds. Spend 10 minutes a day focusing on your breathing and observe thoughts by allowing them to rise and fall without attaching to them. This takes some practice and believe me, it’s not as easy. After a few weeks however, you will begin to notice a greater awareness and control over your thoughts.
Control your breathing
Rapid breathing triggers adrenaline and other panic responses. When faced with pressure, deliberately slow your breathing. This increases blood oxygen and signals to the brain that the danger has passed, which triggers a relaxation response.
Build creative confidence
Probably one of the best ways to avoid triggering your troll brain is to be very confident in your abilities. Even the impromptu comedians on Who’s Line Is it Anyway? aren’t actually making stuff up as they go. It may appear as though they can fire off wildly original jokes at will on the spot, but there’s method to their madness. Behind the scenes they have learned and practiced a massive bank of concepts and scenarios that they know will work. Through practice, they can intuitively mold and stitch these together really fast to get the desired result – a laugh. Experience allows them to suppress the troll brain and let it happen.
Have good relationships
Try to cultivate partnerships with your peers and leaders. When you feel like part of the group, you feel safe. When you feel valued, liked and respected, you feel confident. This makes it easier to step out of your comfort zone when you need to. But its not automatic. Relationships take time to build and they are always a case of give and take.
OVER TO YOU
Being creative on the spot is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s not magic. When you understand why it’s difficult, it becomes easier. Practice, concentration and persistence builds the confidence you need to silence the troll brain and allow ideas to flow out of you.
ANALYSIS IS LIKE A WARM BLANKET.
Numbers, demographics, big data, strategic processes. You can wrap yourself up in it. Get all snuggly and warm. Let yourself slip into blissful self-deception. It tricks you into thinking that you’re making progress. Disguises as insulation what is – in fact – complication. Because the longer you look at something the less it makes sense.
The great jazz musician Charlie Parker put it best. He said, “Master your instrument, master your music. Then forget all that bullsh*t and just play.”
Sometimes if you’re struggling with ideas it helps to forget what you know for a moment and… just go with it.
Unthink the thinkable.