in Business, Creativity, Motivation, Philosophy, Psychology, Science

Think Divergent – How Unrelated Thoughts Spark Creativity

Goals transform a random walk into a chase. – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A while back we were talking about how the incubation period was a vital part of the creative process.

Some people have since referred to studies showing how incubation had no effect on our ability to be creative. Others pointed to studies on the effect of REM to enhance creativity and problem solving.

I think these are valid points and knowing about them and how to use them are really useful and important.

All these studies have value and if we want to use them we should remember one thing. Each of them focuses on one aspect of a more complex puzzle.

We as “consumers” of the information can choose to go down one rabbit hole or we could take the things we feel are useful to us and leave the rest.

Food For Thought

Fill ‘er up!

The reason I choose to be an advocate for the “incubation approach” is simply because the idea turns me on. It’s also the perfect excuse to do things that I enjoy that aren’t directly connected to the problem.

I’m trying to solve but still feed my interests and open up my mind enough so that I’m not zoomed in to the problem too much. It’s a “big picture” kind of thing.

This might not work for everybody, some people need to “grind” because it sparks their creative juices. And that’s something we all should take into consideration when approaching a creative task or problem.

What works for one person might not work for another. It is however important that we try different approaches and challenge our assumptions from time to time.

Divergent Poster

Now we get to the good stuff!

There’s a phenomena that occurs during the creative process that’s called the “divergent thought”. Of course, this only occurs if we get over “the Dip”.

Stefan Mumaw has a great graph that illustrates what happens.

Stefan Mumaw - The Dip

What, no double dippin’? Go chase that Monster Idea with Stefan Mumaw at:

John Cleese talked about this during one of his lectures on creativity. He mentioned that one of his colleagues during the Monty Python years wasn’t producing sketches that were as creative (useful & unique) as the others.

This piqued Cleese’s curiosity so he studied what his colleague did. The colleague didn’t go past the dip. He just went with the first best solution that came to mind and went with it. The others took more time to work on the problem and as a result came up with that divergent idea that sparked the second wave of creativity.

Surfing Shark

A beautiful day to catch a wave and avoid a shark.

This is what I feel happens to me during those moments of incubation. I let the problem sit for a while and let other impressions come to me. It could be something like playing video games, taking a walk or talking to a friend. Something just sparks that thing. It isn’t magic and it isn’t completely random. It’s purposful.

So, what do these divergent thoughts look like?

Well, let’s say we’re working on an ad for a hardware store. Our first idea is to shoot a video at the store and maybe have a hammer as the mascot. Useful idea but not very unique.

We get stuck so we take a walk. We see a salamander by the lake and think “that’s way more interesting!”. This is the “divergent thought”.

We go back to the drawing board but don’t find the connection. We transform the salamander into a dragon. Hm, what now? What do dragons do? They breathe fire, fly, guard treasure…

Aha! Maybe the dragon is guarding a sacred hammer? From what? Alright, let’s just do something like “The Hobbit” and turn that into the ad!

Sure, it’s a rip-off and similar things have been done before by other companies but it’s still more creative than if we just went with the first idea, right?

This is kind of how it works and that’s what I hope you gain from this. Another approach to creativity than you’ve used before. Something more purposeful!


My name is Smaug and I approve this message.

Can you think of an example where you’ve seen this approach work for you? If not, what’s the process that you find most effective for you?

Have a kick-ass creative day!

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