What’s Killing our Creativity?

Scene 1:

I was visiting a hospital today to visit someone who is admitted there to get through a minor surgery. He was supposed to check into the hospital at noon on a given date and check out at about 4:00PM the next day. This means that he had to spend about 28 hours in the hospital. Even for these 28 hours when he was in the hospital, when he was officially on medical leave, he was still working. He was checking his email, responding to his calls and even checking his social media feeds (twitter, Facebook, linked and Instagram).

When probed, he asked me the following question –

“What am I supposed to do if I am not checking my emails or my social media feed? Just sit there and do what?”

At that time, I just let that pass but his question kept coming back to me making me think about what would my behaviour be in such a situation? When I thought about it and if I have to be honest, I would have done a few things differently. Maybe I would have scanned my email once in a while to ensure that there is no fire that needs to be put out. I am fortunate that I don’t necessarily have a lot of fire to put out. So, that would not be an issue with me. I would have picked up a book and read it. Alternately, I would have used the time to catch up on a movie.

What would you do if you were in a such a situation? Are you able to completely disconnect from work or from social media?

If you are like most of us, you would have done something similar.

IF we look at this at a slightly deeper level, we can find that we all want to do something so that we feel busy. We want to feel that we are achieving something.

Scene 2:

Now, lets look at a completely different scene.

We are at work and are in a fix over some issue and need to find a solution to fix it. The issue is not something that has a single right way to solve. And the more creative we are, the better the solution could be. We gather our team around in a room and want to do engage in a brainstorming session. The facilitator sets up the context and wants us to come up with creative ideas that could potentially solve the issue at hand.

We try to come up with some regular ideas, that are neither surprising nor creative. Has this ever happen with you?

I can assure you that most people struggle with coming up with creative ideas. I teach design thinking to experienced executives and as part of the workshop, the participants are required to come up with 25 creative ideas to solve a given challenge. It has never happened in over 100 such cohorts that someone has come up with even 20 ideas (forget creative ideas).

While on the outside, these two scenes may seem to disparate and not connected, research indicates that one is the cause for the other. The fact that we almost always opt to staying busy all the time is probably the cause of the difficulty in coming up with creative ideas. 

Among many qualities that suffer, recent research shows creativity takes a hit when we are constantly busy. The ability to switch between a state of focus and daydreaming is an important skill for being creative. Constant busyness has a significant impact on this ability, thereby making it more difficult to be creative.

Stanford’s Emma Seppälä writes

The idea is to balance linear thinking—which requires intense focus—with creative thinking, which is borne out of idleness. Switching between the two modes seems to be the optimal way to do good, inventive work.

We now consume up to five times as much information as 25 years prior; outside of work we process roughly 100,000 words every day. This saps us of not only willpower (of which we have a limited store) but diminishes our ability to think creatively as well.

Creativity engages the brain’s daydreaming mode directly and stimulates the free flow and association of ideas, forging links between concepts and neural modes that might not otherwise be made. Creativity is all about making non-obvious connection between disparate and disconnected ideas. So, we will struggle to be creative if we are unable to access the daydreaming mode as and when we need. 

This is impossible when every free moment—at work, in line, at a traffic light—we’re reaching for our phone. Our brain becomes habitual to constant stimulation; we grow antsy and irritable when we don’t get that stimulation. At this time we can be sure that we’re addicted to busyness. 

And that’s not so good for us, specially when if we are required to be creative at a moment’s notice. As Seppälä points out many of the world’s greatest minds made important discoveries while not doing much at all. Nikola Tesla had an insight about rotating magnetic fields on a leisurely walk in Budapest; Albert Einstein liked to chill out and listen to Mozart on breaks from intense thinking sessions and even play his violin.

If being creative is important for us, we might have to engineer scarcity in our communications, in our interactions, and in the things we consume so that we have time to allow boredom and allow our minds to wander. Otherwise we run the risk of our lives becoming like a Morse code transmission that’s lacking breaks — a swarm of noise blanketing the valuable data beneath. 

So, the question that we need to ponder is the following:

How to disconnect in a time when connection is demanded by bosses, peers, and friends?

  1. Make time for a long walk without our phones. Incorporate this as a daily routine.
  2. Stop taking our phone out at every opportunity. Start with deciding not to take our phone out when you are waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to green or when we are waiting in a que at a shopping mall to pay for our purchases.
  3. Make more time for fun and games. It is well-known that taking time and having fun by playing games resets the focus and activates the part of brain that is responsible for creativity.
  4. Alternate between doing focused work and activities that are less intellectually demanding. Schedule downtime after every session of focused activity. It could be as simple as taking a 15 minute break before engaging in yet another activity that requires us to focus.

If our work requires us to be creative-on-demand, we need to exercise our creative muscles as well. We would be well off if we make it a part of our daily routine to come up with a set of creative ideas (irrespective of whether we need them or not). This is very similar to digging a well, much before we need water to drink.

If we spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness and we run the risk of permanently reducing our capacity to perform creative work.

That’s not a good sign for those who wish to perform creatively, which in reality is all of us and more specifically is a bad news for all of us entrepreneurs.

Research shows that the fear of missing out (FOMO) increases anxiety and takes a toll on your health in the long run.

Of all the things to suffer, ability to think creatively is one of our greatest losses. As entrepreneurs, a flexible mindset, open to new ideas and approaches is invaluable. Losing it just to check on the latest tweet or post an irrelevant selfie is an avoidable but sadly sanctioned tragedy.



FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.

Due to the always connected nature of this world, we now have an entire generation growing up amidst the fear of missing out..

This is the reason, why we are glued to our Twitter or Facebook or SnapChat feed.

We can always argue that this has been the case for decades and has only amplified due to the explosion & the variety of the number of channels that are now available. We, as humans are hardwired to try and stay in touch with our friends, family and society as such.

When I was growing up, we were glued to the comic books, the TV sets and the generation before was glued to the newspapers and so on.

The fear of missing out is not a new phenomenon and is a fundamental characteristics of human beings, and one that has helped us survive over the millennia. So, I don’t think FOMO hurts us much.

We will get habituated to this ever connected world, learn the skills to develop deep focus and life will go on.

While we learn to do so, we are in the purgatory where it is extremely painful to see people who are unable to function due to FOMO and are constantly trying to stay in touch (unfortunately more virtually than physically) and hence are missing out so much that is happening around us.

This fear of missing out about what is happening elsewhere and not bothering about what is happening around us will hurt us in the short term, till we are able to learn to deal with this.

What this does is provides entrepreneurs the opportunity to create products and services that can actually help people be aware of what is happening in and around them, in addition to what is happening in their virtual worlds.

There is another kind of fear that i want to talk about: FOSO.

FOSO – Fear of Standing Out

The fear of standing out is a much deeper fear. This has been around for as long as we have been around as well.

This is a much more fundamental fear – the fear of exclusion and the not belonging to the norm.

This is the fear that makes us send our kids to school, when we know that the entire schooling system is broken and doesn’t help our kids.

This is the fear that makes us take up a job even when we know that it is something that we will actively resent instead of doing something that we are passionate about.

This is the fear that led Copernicus to not share his discovery with the world.

This is the feat that leads to the emperor being naked and no one wanting to confront him.

This is the fear that every entrepreneur faces in his or her life.

This is the fear that drives potential creatives and artists and entrepreneurs to never explore the possibilities and potential.

This is the fear that entrepreneurs and innovators and creatives also face when they start out on their journey.

So, what is different? How do the overcome the fear? They don’t.

Most of them are still afraid of going out and making a fool of themselves.

Most of them are still nervous when they go out and give their best.

Some of these attempts work and they see a lot of success. They are talked about, shared and become part of the folklore.

Most of these attempts fail and they are quickly forgotten.

This ability to do it inspite of the fear is what makes these people great and succeed.

With the internet breaking boundaries, we have the opportunity to not only stand out but also blend in. There are 100’s of 1000’s of small niche communities that we can be a part of to get the sense of belonging in our lives and hence unshackle us from the fear of being ridiculed and laughed at in a different aspect of our lives.

We are living in the age where being different is being celebrated and if you are not only different but also find a way to be remarkable in your own way, you can actually create and lead the tribe.

Why should entrepreneurs care about FOSO

If you are an entrepreneur, an artist or a creative, you need to care about this fear of standing out, not just in yourself but in your teams as well.

I know a lot of entrepreneurs who could do so much better, if only they could foster an environment where their teams can actually speak up without worrying about being ridiculed or standing out.

This would not only allow your business to flourish but also allow your team members to enjoy what they are doing, thereby making your business  a happy place to be.

Another thing that entrepreneurs can benefit a lot from is if their teams are open and honest about sharing their opinions directly to the entrepreneurs.

I have been in situations where the someone in the team realises that what the entrepreneurs is attempting has a flaw but doesn’t bring it up because of FOSO.

If I could measure the amount of damage this one act of FOSO brings to corporates, I am sure it will be in the billions of dollars.

We as entrepreneurs, need to encourage our teams to tell us when they see us as naked, without having any FOSO.

How to address FOSO in our business

It is one thing to tell that we need to encourage our teams to speak up and not be afraid of FOSO and a totally different thing to be able to pull it off.

Here are some suggestions that I think could work:

Anonymous Feedback:

For a lot of people, this process starts with baby steps. As an entrepreneur, you could have a FOSO box, a literal box, where your team members can drop off their ideas, suggestions and criticisms in a safe and anonymous background. I would personally prefer not to do this, but for a lot of people this is a good start.

FOSO Meet-ups:

As entrepreneurs, you can institute a monthly meet-up of your teams, which you could call FOSO meetups where you start the meeting by acknowledging your FOSO and encouraging your teams to share their opinions and beat FOSO. If you want, you could start with something personal and then move to professional topics, once you have been able to establish trust amongst the team.

The next step is to allow the team members to set up a FOSO meetup whenever they think that they have something that they want to share but are afraid due to FOSO.

Defining these meetings as FOSO meetings in a way addresses the fear as everyone is aware of what to expect and no one criticises the person who is standing up, however silly or wrong they might be.

Reward People who stand out:

Nothing motivates or reinforces behaviour more than rewards (maybe punishment does, but that is for another day). If you are able to recognise people who stand out, not just by their actions but also through their thoughts, you start to reinforce this behaviour and slowly this becomes your culture.

This one thing alone can have a significant influence on the success of your business.