Innovation You

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Exhibit the Artifacts of Life

They bring us back to joy or pathos or desire

Gestalt psychology espouses that we make sense of the chaotic and variant stimuli that barrage us at every moment of our post-modern existence by building dynamic correlations between what we perceive and how we experience it. For example, driving a car requires us to attend to a mixture of information scurrying across the contiguous windows, mirrors and dashboards. Throw in a disruptive array of street signs, billboards, a cell phone and the crying baby in the backseat and we transform this routine task into an overwhelming feat of parallel data processing that would vex a supercomputer. Our capacity to make these complex and imperceptible connections requires that we generate some of our own information to fill in the blanks. Essentially this means we work with our world to construct a representation of it that is in some way familiar and understandable.

As we drive through our days we look out from our front of mind windshield to get to our desired places on time while avoiding oncoming traffic and unexpected hazards. Yet, the art of navigation requires an acute awareness of vacillating reality while fixing our focus on our intended destinations. We miss our turns and find ourselves lost because we allocate too much of our attention on where we have been and not enough on where we are going.

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Some researchers believe that memory and imagination are actually related functions in the hippocampus region of the brain. The ability to retrieve and create images are similar operations working in reverse directions. That’s why we often remember things in strange ways or events that never happened at all. It may also be why creative acts can bring us back to some earlier and often hidden event.  We gather the artifacts of our lives and put them on display where we can routinely encounter their potency: Photos, diplomas, letters of commendation or knick knacks commemorating that special trip to the Great Wall. They are our rear view mirror. They bring us back to joy or pathos or desire. They keep our past present.

When effectively integrated into the current development of our lives, these symbols preserve our sense of who we are and the place we occupy in this world, but when unfulfilled or mistaken for the future they become the signs for failure, anger or Self-deception. Still we may use our innate time shifting apparatus to bring us forward again by creating artifacts of thought that allow us to imagine the future as our past. That dusty old book cover with the name of the novel we haven’t written yet inscribed on it or that wee little cottage on the glen overlooking the lake that we are saving up to purchase all become signs that keep us on our most desired path. As the late American mythologist Joseph Campbell declared “Follow your bliss.”But you can’t follow anything unless you keep it clear and convenient. Compose, concoct and create to connect where we have been with where we will be. Graphics, mandalas, manifestos, slogans, fight songs, photographs, books, bric-a-brac, ornaments gnomes and novelties impregnate the trivial with a sense of destiny. Make them the dashboard, the carefully choreographed mantel, the shadowbox, the laminate on the wall, the rhythmic image on the i-tech. Enlist anything that triggers our remembrance of our future – our precious quest. Keep the new populated and animated until it subsumes or retires the old. Revise and rearrange as appropriate to keep the vision fresh. Move from let go to let grow.

Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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