Last Spring my dog, Buddy, started chasing chipmunks. They would quickly escape into one of their holes in the ground, where he would dig for a few minutes, then give up. One day, a chipmunk ran into the mouth of the corrugated plastic pipe that carries excess rain water away from my backyard. Unlike the extensive tunnels with multiple exits of the ground squirrel’s burrow, this pipe had only one way out. The rodent was safe, but trapped. Nevertheless, Buddy was determined to get him. By the time I noticed, he had dug up 20 feet of pipe which had been buried several inches underground.
The pipes were ruined, as was a good section of my landscaping. It took me, and my sons, nearly a day to repair. Not wanting a repeat occurrence, I needed a way to seal off the exit hole of the pipe that would block chipmunks, but not water.
As I looked at the open end of the pipe, I thought I could use something like chicken wire to wrap over the end. Then I remembered something I learned while installing gutters on my house. I have a lot of trees, so I get a lot of leaves in my gutter. I have gutter guards, but they can’t keep out all the debris. For extra protection, I was advised to install a downspout strainer which is an upside-down metal basket, shaped like a light bulb, that you insert into the top hole of the downspout inside the gutter. I had an idea that one of those might be the perfect answer for my chipmunk (er, dog) problem. With a little manipulation, it was. The downspout strainer is now a ground squirrel gate.
I’m sharing this story of a simple solution to illustrate an important component of innovation. Creative-thinkers have a number of characteristics in common. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy; and they are willing to take risks. Neither of these matter, however, if one other characteristic is missing: they must be open-minded to new experiences.
You see, we generate ideas to solve problems, and most new ideas come from combining or synthesizing two or more existing ideas. Which means that before you can come up with a new idea, you must have a vast and diverse amount of knowledge from which you can draw. And, to acquire all that knowledge, you need to experience many different things. Or as Albert Einstein put it, “The only source of knowledge is experience.”
Every time you have a new experience, you generate new information and data that you store in your brain. Each new experience literally opens new neural pathways - electrical connections - between the brain cells. In order to be creative, one needs a lexicon of experiences to look up. While we acquire most of our knowledge from reading (which is experience), there is nothing like the act of “doing” that embeds the knowledge deeper and more securely into our brains.
If you have a sense of adventure, then you are already on the road to becoming an innovator. There is always some level of risk in trying something new. At a minimum, you may not enjoy it. Perhaps we fear, what C.S. Lewis noted in this quote, “Experience is the most brutal of teachers. But, you learn, by God, you learn.”
In addition to building your store of knowledge there are many additional benefits to trying new things. One is that it will build your confidence, because every time you take the risk of trying something new you get a little more comfortable with your fear of the unknown. Benjamin Franklin understood this fear when he said, “Experience is the worst teacher. It always gives the test first and the instruction afterward.”
Another benefit is that trying something new may challenge your beliefs. While changing your beliefs is not necessarily a goal of the creative-thinking techniques I teach, getting you to view them from a different perspective is.
Frequently, when I’m invited to speak to an organization on creative-thinking and innovation, someone will come up to me and ask, “Are you going to give us lots of ideas today?” My answer is, “No, because I’m not an expert in your industry, and I don’t have the wealth of knowledge about your business that you do. Instead of giving you ideas, I will give you techniques that will enable you to generate ideas of your own. I will show you how to get a different perspective on what you already know, and with that perhaps you will come up with a new way of doing things that will make your company more productive and profitable.”
Gaining new experience can be as simple as taking a new route to work, or listening to a new type of music on the radio while you drive. In an earlier article for this column, titled Change Please, I share a number of ways one can acclimate themselves to trying new things. Make sure you are continuing to build your store of knowledge by exposing yourself to new stimuli daily.
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an author, humorist and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is also the author of the humorous children’s book: The Annoying Ghost Kid. For more information on Robert, please visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.