End of year Brainstorm

Dec 28 2004 by Jurgen Wolff Print This Article

This time of year is a busy time for a lot of people, but maybe you'll have the chance to create a little quiet space for yourself in the middle of it. Leave the e-mail for a day, give the TV a rest, even turn off the mobile phone!

I love what Garrison Keillor wrote about the latter: "There was no radio in The Spirit of St. Louis and nobody knew where Lindburgh was as he flew the Atlantic until some fishermen spotted him off the Irish coast, but a man on a train from New York to Boston must furnish frequent updates on his progress."

Hmm, maybe that's a good resolution: to say fewer things that don't need saying, and more things that do...

Here are this month's ideas and inspirations:

I recently read a biography of Walt Disney and was struck by how curious he remained throughout his life.

In an article in this month's issue of Popular Science, an article about Amar Bose (inventor of great speakers, among many other things) revealed he also is driven by curiosity.

"I never went into business to make money," he said. "I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn't been done before."

He puts his money where his mouth is, too: most of the company's profits go right back into research and development. Disney did the same thing, many times risking his fortune to finance wild new scheme (feature-length animated films, Disneyland, and the mostly-unrealised Experimental Community of the Future).

Bose once asked the brilliant mathematician Norbert Wiener the reason for the latter's breakthroughs. Wiener said two words: "Insatiable curiosity."

All three of these people kept looking for new and better ways of doing something; they never sat back and accepted that the way things are is the way things have to be--there is always a better way...and their child-like curiosity (and their willingness to invest in their quest) led them to those ways.

ACTION: As you look forward to the New Year, consider what you have accepted as "good enough." Now try looking at it from a child's viewpoint and ask a lot of questions. How could it be more effective, more enjoyable, more pleasing? (Ignore the usual constraints when considering these questions.) You may find your curiosity reviving - and new ideas starting to flow! Once they do, also consider what resources you may need to invest (= risk) in order to turn those ideas into reality.

Psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists have studied why so often we don't follow through on our resolutions (New Year's and others). They discovered that our ability to change habits requires experiencing a positive emotion about the new behaviour. In other words, just thinking you "should" do something isn't strong enough to last very long.

Secondly, we have to overcome the automatic nature of old behaviour patterns. These patterns usually have triggers that lead us to do what we've done a lot before. The trick is to figure out what those triggers are and replace them with triggers for the new behaviour.

For example, if you want to get up earlier, and your normal pattern is going back to sleep after the alarm rings, currently the alarm bell may trigger your hitting the "snooze" button. To change the trigger, you could put your alarm bell out of your reach, so you actually have to get up to turn it off.

ACTION: If there is a behaviour you want to change, first make sure that the new one is something you really want, and use your imagination to get excited about the new outcome. Second, consider what currently triggers your old behaviour, and brainstorm how to change the trigger so it leads you into the new, desired behaviour instead.

...begins with a single step, the Chinese say. So does James Dyson, inventor of the Dyson Dual Cyclone Vaccum Cleaner and other breakthroughs. He reveals one of the reasons for his success: "We never stop inventing. We keep making little changes, and by the time people notice, it looks like a quantum leap."

ACTION: Sometimes taking a giant leap forward is tremendously exciting, but much of the time progress actually is more like Dyson's description. Consider whether you could apply this approach to a challenge in your life: choose one area of your life you'd like to improve, and each day come up with one tiny improvement you could make.

You may know that one of my favourite creativity strategies is "try the opposite." That is, look at how things are usually done, and see what ideas come from considering doing it the opposite way.

In a recent issue of Wired, I ran across a great example of this, as reported by Tom McNichol in an article about Holland's traffic engineer Hans Monderman. At a busy intersection, "several years ago, Monderman ripped out all the traditional instruments used by traffic engineers to influence driver behaviour--traffic lights, road markings, and some pedestrian crossings - and in their place created a roundabout, or traffic circle. The circle is remarkable for what it doesn't contain: sings or signals telling drivers how fast to go, who has the right-of-way, or how to behave. There are no lane markers or curbs separating street and sidewalk..."

Sounds like a prescription for lots of accidents, right? But the opposite is true. The very ambiguity of the situation makes drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians pay attention and spontaneously figure out how to make the flow work.

ACTION: For your next challenge, take the time to consider two things: first, how the opposite of the usual approach might work; second, whether you can improve the situation by removing something rather than adding more elements.

Social scientists Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania have suggested creating a national index of well-being, the happiness equivalent of a nation's Gross National Product. They point out that while our standard of living has gone up, our levels of happiness have not. Maybe if we measured how various things effect the quality of our lives, not just the amount of money in our pockets, we might start making decisions differently.

ACTION: Why wait for a government to start measuring happiness? It might fun and productive to look back over the past year to see what were the things that gave you the greatest happiness. (Did they cost anything?) How can you bring more of those into the coming year? What things that didn't give you much enjoyment can you let go, to make more room for the good things?

This quote comes from Nkosi Johnson, a Zulu boy who was infected with the AIDS virus and in the brief time before his death at the age of 12 became a spokesperson for the battle against AIDS. His mantra was: "Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are."

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About The Author

Jurgen Wolff
Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and hypnotherapist. His goal is to help individuals liberate their own creativity through specific techniques that can be used at work as well as at home. His recent books include "Focus: the power of targeted thinking," a W. H. Smith best-seller, and "Your Writing Coach".