Innovative thinkers are heralded for their ability to think creatively. They don't get bogged down by the past. They have a magic crystal ball to see into the future. They're like magicians, pulling creative ideas of all sorts seemingly out of thin air.
If none of the above characteristics seem to describe how you work, you might figure you're just not very creative. That's not true, says Theodore Scaltsas, a philosophy chair at the University of Edinburgh, in a recent Harvard Business Review post.
Scaltsas believes that true creative thinkers make sound decisions influenced by how they've handled similar problems in the past. Anyone can solve problems creatively if they're going about it in the right way. Sitting quietly and expecting that lightning-flash of a good idea to magically pop into your head? Not the right way. Reframing the task at hand based on past experience, which then inspires an innovative idea? That's the right way.
Instead of forgetting everything you've learned to come up with a completely fresh, never-been-done-before idea, Scaltsas suggests a completely opposite approach. Train your brain to uncover tried-and-true solutions that have worked before. Scaltsas calls this process brain mining. "We search our mind for old solutions that we can apply to new kinds of problems," he explains. At first this seems far easier said than done. If you already had a solution to a vexing problem locked down, it wouldn't be so vexing now, would it?
That's where Scaltsas's cognitive trick comes in. It's not about flexing our creative muscles while problem solving. He suggests we channel that energy to adopt a creative approach to problem thinking.
If we think differently about problems, we will be begin to see them in a different light--a light that may begin to feel more familiar and less mind-numbing. He suggests that, as you think through what's vexing you, you imagine each hurdle causing it to be so problematic falling away one at a time. This is the first step toward reframing your challenge. It helps your brain think about what you're facing in a different way. An idea from the past gets triggered, and you can more easily identify an old-hat solution that you suddenly discover works perfectly.
For example, he presents the problem of being trapped in a room 10 flights up as a fire rages in the hallway. Jumping out the window or exiting through the door are fatal. But you think through these options anyway and consider how either might become a safe escape. And that's how you land on using the curtains as a parachute to jump out the window. You've creatively solved your problem not by creating something out of nothing, but by seeing the curtains in a new light.
"Creative thinking is clearly a natural process because the mind naturally solves new problems through old solutions, thanks to our biased and predictive brain's mechanisms," Scaltsas reiterates. "All we have to do to think creatively, therefore, is to systematically redefine an intractable problem until it transforms into a problem that some old solution we already have can solve."