Creativity tip: Become a question mark again

Blind acceptance is the mortal enemy of creative thought.

I see it all the time in my day job.  “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” may possibly be the most irksome, wrong-headed statement ever uttered in a business environment.  It’s like saying, “I vote [insert political party] because us Johnsons have always voted [aforementioned party].”  Adhering to any program or tradition or business plan exclusively for the sake of continuity is a slippery slope to stagnation.

My friend, fellow blogger, and brain guru Dennis Ritchie says that our noggins are hard-wired to default to “successful” experience.  When we fall asleep each night, our brain kicks into gear, sorting and sifting through the day’s experiences and placing memories into their proper file folders.  Things that are new, different, and out of the ordinary are viewed with suspicion and set aside in a file marked “Danger! Revisit at a later time,” while safe, everyday, known experiences are placed in the bulging “Use again tomorrow” folder.  It’s from this folder that we subconsciously draw our thinking “instructions” the following day, because this information got us successfully through the previous day.  Life and limb are secure, which is the prime human directive.

Creativity happens when we consciously set aside the “Use again tomorrow” file in favor of the “Danger! Revisit” file.  Creativity is a result of change, not sameness.

Who are the most curious group of people you know?  Children, of course.  Why do pumpkins have guts?  Where are we going after school?  Who invented the first curse word?  Why do dogs have cold noses?  The questions are endless.  If you are blessed to be a parent, you know this from experience.

Somewhere along the way, though, we lose much of our inquisitive nature.  During the formal education process, we are faced with an endless barrage of knowns — formulas, diagrams, statistics, studies — that suck the curiosity right out of us with a big ol’ smoothie straw.  The late author and cultural critic Neil Postman said it best:  “Kids enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”

The remedy is easy and fun.  Ask questions like a 7-year-old.  Drive your boss and co-workers crazy.  Why can’t we do it this way?  Why have we always done it that way?  What would happen if we did this?  How would it look if we turned that around and did just the opposite?

Fight your natural urge to be a conservative, upstanding, sensible, logical, boring adult who always chooses the known route, and lead yourself off the beaten trail.  Explore rabbit holes to see where they lead.

Become a question mark again.


Question mark photo by Marco Belluci.

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5 Responses to “Creativity tip: Become a question mark again”

  1. Lynn Foster says:

    How do birds fly? Do snowmen really come alive? Why do Christmas trees smell so good? Where do you find the end of the rainbow? Interesting article, Mark! I’m curious. How did you come up with this idea?

    • awritesmart says:

      This was based on a presentation I do on generating creativity, Lynn. One of my Top 10 ways to generate creativity is to question everything. Mainly, it’s based on a LOT of research and reading on the subject.

  2. My friend Rick was driving in 6 lanes of speeding LA traffic when his daughter asked him,”Daddy, are we racing?” He laughed and answered,”Yes, I guess we are.” To which she responded,”Who’s winning?”

    I love seeing thoughts re-thought through your creative mind and written so well. Makes me think,”Yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” The “Danger! Revisit” file is just great. Period! Uh, I mean . . . ?

  3. Mark Johnson says:

    By the way, if you’ve posted a comment and now don’t see it, there’s a reason. I just don’t know what it is yet. Funky things are happening with my commenting, probably because this site is still in its infancy, catching a runny nose from other sites in their infancies, and wacky things are resulting. Sorry!

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