Great ideas often come from "wrong" answers

One of the biggest barriers to creativity is this notion of the "right" answer. We spend our lives being taught to look for and respond with a predetermined answer some other person discovered or delineated, so of course when we want to come up with something original, we're stymied. I've introduced the idea of mental sets—thinking patterns that keep us stuck because they've worked in the past—before, but I wanted to focus more on how we get stuck...and, of course, talk further about how to get unstuck.                                     

In Introduction to Psychology textbooks, there is almost invariably a section (tiny though it may be in relation to the rest of the text) on divergent thinking and creativity. (Actually, that's interesting in and of itself, isn't it? Such a textbook is filled with information on right answers and has only a small box on being creative. See how our society trains us?) Students are typically challenged to solve one of two think-out-of-the-box problems. The most common is this: Imagine you have a candle, a series of thumbtacks, and a box of matches. How can you use the supplies to mount the candle on the wall so it can be lit without toppling over?*

What makes me crazy about this type of exercise is that there's a right answer. The book is trying to illustrate out-of-the-box thinking because the solution requires you to use one of the objects in an unconventional way—but how unconventional can it be if there's still a right answer?!

In the end, such an illustration doesn't really demonstrate divergent thinking, let alone creativity. It just reinforces the notion that there's a "right" way to be creative.

Which brings us back to why most of us are stuck when we try to be creative. We're looking for the "right" answer when there really isn't one.

Let me say that again.

There is no one "right" way to be creative.

In fact, true creativity requires the pursuit of ideas others have neglected, disparaged, or dismissed. That is, a "wrong" answer is usually a creative answer. Sure a good creative answer must not just be novel or unusual - it must also ultimately be useful in some way. But usefulness is not always immediately apparent, and that's okay.

That brings me to my second point: Ideas usually show up in pieces. We have to be smart enough to hang on to each piece until we figure out how to fit them together.

Take Spencer Silver, for example, a chemist at 3M who was trying to create a stronger glue for 3M's tape. Along the way, he created a much weaker glue. It made for rotten tape; in fact, it peeled easily off of everything it was stuck to. Rather than throw out everything associated with that "failure," however, he kept the glue and all the information on how he formulated it, sure that there must be some way to use it.

Another 3M employee, Arthur Fry, sang in his church's choir, and was regularly frustrated by the way his bookmarks fell out of the delicate hymnals. So he decided to try Silver's weak glue, painting it on the back of several bookmarks. This worked beautifully, as the bookmarks could be moved around in the hymnal from week to week without damaging the pages.

As a result, Post-It notes were born.

And it may seem that a single right answer was found for that glue. But there wasn't—today there are hundreds upon hundreds of products based on the Post-It idea. So clearly there were lots of good, workable, creative ways to use the glue.

I say again: Throw out the idea that there's one "right" answer; instead, begin to think about finding "creative" answers—answers that are unique or unusual and also applicable to the situation at hand. And don't forget that often creative answers don't appear full-fledged, or ready to use as-is. Usually they need to be embellished, tested, refined, revised. They need you to play with them a bit.

Don't be afraid to brainstorm wildly, and not just in your head. Write your ideas down in some sort of Idea Notebook or File, and then keep all of the ideas, not just the ones you choose to run with. Fellow creativity PT blogger Michael Michalko describes how Thomas Edison recorded his brainstorming in notebooks—in fact, he filled 3500 notebooks. Writing everything down allowed Edison to "cross-fertilize [his] ideas, techniques, and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next." And he didn't give up on ideas that weren't immediately workable. He realized that he was always growing and learning, and he would often glance back over the things he'd recorded in search of new insights and connections. Talk about an approach that worked—Edison held more patents than any other inventor in history!

How can you get yourself out of the "right answer" mindset? Try fostering your ability to tolerate ambiguity. In other words, try allowing yourself to search for interesting or unusual or just plain weird approaches and combinations, rather than searching for a narrow, confining "right" answer (that probably doesn't exist). Give yourself permission to go in directions you just know aren't "right" for your project—because that right answer mindset is what's keeping you stuck.

* The solution is to thumbtack the matchbox bottom to the wall, then light the candle with a match and either set the candle carefully on top of the box, or melt a little wax and mount the candle on the top of the box more securely.

© 2011 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.

About the Author

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., was an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology. She passed away from a brain aneurysm in 2016.

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