A little girl is using a toy shovel to fill a hole in her back yard when a neighbor looks over the fence and asks "Hi! What you doing?" 

"My goldfish died," she replies tearfully, "and I've just buried him." 

The neighbor says, "But that's a pretty big hole for a goldfish, isn't it?" 

"That's because he's inside your stupid cat."

Jokes like this one are funny because the punch line is so out of context with the setup. Such a darling little girl, and then - BAM! Something we would never expect of a little girl. Which causes the chuckle.

As human beings, we are all constantly observing the environment around us and making mental predictions for what will happen next, given the context of our observations. The ability to interpret observations and fit them into a context of some kind may in fact be one of the hallmarks of consciousness itself.

But context is also a key to innovation. Creativity drives innovation, and creativity is context-dependent. Only in this case, rather than using context to make predictions about our environment, creative ideas come when we violate context. Context violations produce things you don't expect - not just funny punch lines, but innovative ideas, as well.

Your most creative insights are almost always the result of taking some idea that works in one domain and applying it in another context. As Matt Ridley has observed,

Innovation occurs when ideas get together and "have sex" with each other.

In evolutionary terms, this is called "exaptation." Bird feathers, for instance, are thought to have evolved originally during the Cretaceous period to help land-based reptiles protect themselves from the cold, but when one species of reptile later began experimenting with gliding, feathers were exapted as excellent tools for controlling air flow.

And innovation thrives on exaptation. The anti-lock braking system in your car was exapted from the field of aviation, originally developed because icy runways can't be sprayed with salt and gravel to assist in slowing a speeding plane. Computer punch cards were exapted from the cards originally used to drive mechanized looms. Viagra was originally developed as a drug to reduce hypertension.

You often become more creative when you violate the context of your own expectations. So if you want to generate more innovative ideas, then you should purposely expose your mind to unexpected things and conflicting concepts.

This, by the way, is also why so much creativity is fueled through social connections. Did you ever notice that people who are connected to diverse groups of others often seem to be teeming with creative new ideas? In commenting on the social implications of this, Clay Shirky said, "This is not creativity born of deep intellectual ability. It is creativity as an import-export business."

So do you want to be more creative? Then look for ways to violate your own expectations by purposely changing the context of your existence. Here are ten simple exercises: 

  1. When meeting people you don't know at a party, pick a point of view you vehemently disagree with and argue in favor of it instead. Be convincing.
  2. Or find the person you have least in common with and spend an hour in conversation with them.
  3. Read a magazine you would never ordinarily have the least interest in.
  4. At a restaurant, order a food you normally can't stand, and eat it.
  5. Move to a different apartment, or a different office location, a different job, or even a different city. Change your environment for no reason other than to make the change.
  6. Drive a different route to work or school, or to church, or to the club. Take a long cut, on purpose.
  7. Spend 30 minutes a day with a language course from Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone to learn how to ask directions and order food in a new language. 
  8. Put your clothes on in a different order every day (i.e., shirt first one day, socks first the next, right then left instead of left then right, and so forth).
  9. Brainstorm different ways to use a common tool (like a hammer, or a Phillips screwdriver).
  10. Meet one new person a day for a whole month. Talk to them, converse with them, get to know them a bit more. You can easily do this online.