It's been a while since we've checked in with Heraclitus (the ancient Greek philosopher whom I consider to be the word's first world's first creativity teacher). Let's do so now and see what advice he can offer us. His words for today are:
or you won’t find it.”
As always, Heraclitus can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The creativity strategy I see here is:
When we explore for ideas and information, sometimes we find things that are better or more exciting than what we were originally looking for. Thus, we need to keep our minds open to unsought-for possibilities.
For example, in the 1930s physicist Karl Jansky improvised a new antenna to study the effects of telephone static. Instead, he discovered radio waves from the Milky Way galaxy, and in the process helped create the science of radioastronomy.
In 1856, chemist William Perkin searched for a synthetic quinine to combat malaria. Instead, he discovered a dyestuff (he called it “Mauveline,” which the public shortened to “mauve”) that was the first practical synthetic color.
In 1984, biologist Alex Jeffreys studied the gene for the muscle protein myloglobin, hoping to gain an understanding of how genes evolve. Instead, he stumbled on a stretch of DNA in the middle of that gene that varied greatly from one individual to another. This led to his pioneering work in the creation of “DNA fingerprinting,” which has revolutionized not only forensic science but also other disciplines such as anthropology and epidemiology.
Think of the times in your own life when one thing has led to something entirely different. How did you get interested in your line of work? How about the times you’ve gone to the library in search of a particular book, and then found something even better on the shelf behind you?
As writer Franklin Adams put it,
I have was acquired by looking up something
and finding something else on the way.”
Here's my question for you: What mindset do you adopt when you want to see and take advantage of the unexpected?
This is what I do (sometimes it works fine, and sometimes less so):
- I try to loosen my preconceptions about what I expect to find in a situation;
- I pay special attention to the anomalous things I come upon rather than ignoring them; and,
- I try to use what I discover as stepping stones to something very different.
When I’m in a hurry or narrowly focused on a task, I have a hard time adopting this mindset. That's because I tend to filter out information that strikes me as irrelevant. Conversely, when I’m relaxed or playful, there’s a greater probability that unexpected things flow my way.
What works for you?