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Creative Blocks

You Don’t Need New Ideas, You Need a New Perspective

The unexpected creative benefits of a "beginner’s mind."


The Irish novelist Colum McCann once explained how he sometimes reformats his writing in tiny type—eight-point Times New Roman—so that he’s compelled to peer and squint at the words, seeing them differently.

A lesser artist, faced with the challenge of revising a manuscript, might think first about fiddling with the product itself: altering the plot, adding extra paragraphs, inventing a new character. But McCann’s tactic embodies a crucial truth about creative work. Often, the way to get unstuck isn’t to change whatever it is you’re looking at—but instead to change how you’re looking at it.

We see the world, and our work, through countless lenses of assumption and habit—fixed ways of thinking, seeing and acting, of which we’re usually unconscious. And that’s exactly as it should be: Our brains are wired to automate as many processes as possible, thereby freeing up resources for the unforeseen. Or, as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead summed it up: “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” You’d never manage to order a burrito—let alone write a novel or complete a redesign—if you had to think consciously about every step. First open your mouth; next, get your tongue in position to form words; then activate your vocal cords…

This urge toward making things unconscious is a blessing if you want to do the same thing, over and over, ever more efficiently. But it becomes a problem when we’re called upon to do things differently—when you hit a roadblock in creative work, or in life, and the old approaches no longer seem to work.

Over the years, researchers have highlighted numerous ways in which these automatic processes land us in trouble. The most famous is probably the case of the “invisible gorilla,” in which the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed people a video of a basketball game, asking then to count passes between players.

Half failed to spot a person in a gorilla outfit walk across the screen; they weren’t looking for that anomaly, so they literally didn’t see it. And there are plenty of other examples, such as the so-called “curse of knowledge,” which describes how experts find it hard to see a problem from an ordinary person’s point of view, because they’ve lost sight of how much specialist knowledge they already possess. In other words, your creative work probably has its share of gorillas, you just don’t quite know that you should be looking.

Experts find it hard to see a problem from an ordinary person’s point of view, because they’ve lost sight of how much specialist knowledge they already possess.

“The real act of discovery,” wrote Marcel Proust, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” The trick is to cultivate what George Carlin called “vuja dé”: a strange sense of unfamiliarity in the familiar, thereby revealing opportunities or solutions you hadn’t previously noticed. But the question is: How? Manipulating the world we see through our mental lenses comes naturally to us. Seeing and manipulating the lenses themselves, on the other hand, feels much tougher: It’s like trying to explain the concept of water to fish. But Colum McCann’s eight-point-font trick points the way: Frequently, the way out of stuckness is to defamiliarize yourself with what you’re working on by shifting your perspective.

One simple technique is to put physical distance between yourself and the problem. Research suggests that people rate an idea as more creative when it’s described as having originated in some far-away country, perhaps because they picture it, in their mind’s eye, as “off in the distance,” so that only its most important features stand out. By contrast, when it’s pictured as being close at hand, they’re more likely to get bogged down in irrelevant details, or nitpicking objections. Maybe that’s why it always seems like you get your best ideas on airplanes, or hiking in Glacier National Park: Your challenges seem far off, so the basic contours of a solution to your problem, or the next step for your project, stand out.

That’s why it always seems like you get your best ideas on airplanes.

If hopping on a plane isn’t an option right now, try simulating temporal distance instead: That’s the message of the timeworn advice to imagine the eulogy at your own funeral. Looking back at your life from this imagined future perspective, it’s suddenly far easier to see what really matters, which battles are worth fighting, and how you’ll be proud (or ashamed) to say you spent your time. Alternatively, externalize your thoughts by writing them down in a journal. The point isn’t necessarily that you’ll have an instant breakthrough, but that by relating to your thinking in this “third-person” way, you’ll loosen the grip of the old assumptions, seeing your thoughts afresh, and creating potential for new insights.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter exactly how you choose to deliver a jolt to your unseen assumptions and fixed perspectives. What really counts, when you’re faced with a challenge, is remembering that it’s even an option. Next time you’re feeling the pressure to hunt frantically for an incredible new idea, don’t forget that merely seeing the old ideas differently might suffice. With enough practice, you might even attain that state of perfectly fresh seeing known to Zen Buddhists as “beginner’s mind”—that clear and spacious mindset where, freed from everything you thought you knew about the world, you can finally see what’s really there.

Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and writes a column on psychology for The Guardian. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him at @oliverburkeman.

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