Sunday, October 13, 2013
How Daydreams Can Make Us More Confident In Real Life
Editors’ Note: The following excerpts are from the book Creative Confidence, coming out this week from Tom Kelley (author of The Art of Innovation) and IDEO founder David Kelley (who also led the creation of Stanford’s d.school).
Daydreaming gets a bad rap. Watch a classroom scene in nearly any Hollywood movie, and you’re likely to see a kid getting busted for daydreaming in class — gazing out the window or staring off into space when the teacher calls on him.
It’s a case of art imitating life because our minds do tend to wander. But a wandering mind can be a good thing.
Researcher Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara believes that our brains are often working on “task-unrelated” ideas and solutions when we daydream. That could explain studies showing that prolific mind wanderers score higher on tests of creativity. And new research on the default network of the brain similarly found that our minds make unlikely connections between ideas, memories, and experiences when we are at rest and not focused on a specific task or project.
Daydreaming has problem-solving power. Sometimes it helps to stop focusing so intently on an issue, and aim for what IDEO founder David Kelley’s mentor Bob McKim used to call “relaxed attention.” In that mental state, the problem or challenge occupies space in your brain, but not on the front burner.
Relaxed attention lies between meditation, where you completely clear your mind, and the laser-like focus you apply when tackling a tough math or engineering problem. Our brains can make cognitive leaps when we are not completely obsessed with a challenge, which is why good ideas sometimes come to us while we are in the shower, or taking a walk or a long drive. (David Kelley often places a whiteboard marker in his shower, so he can write a passing idea on the glass wall before it slips away.)
So if you find yourself stuck on a problem, take 20 minutes or so off the grid; let your mind disengage temporarily. You may find a solution arriving like a flash or stroke of insight. In fact, when you are stuck on a problem, here are a couple of ways to defocus your mind and to get into relaxed attention.
Try taking a walk, away from traffic or intrusions. Poets, writers, scientists, and thinking people of all sorts throughout history have found inspiration while walking.
Philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Perhaps it is because of the increased blood flow from the exercise, or the emotional distance gained by walking away from a semi-urgent issue that has been occupying your mind all day. A “thought walk” can take place any time of day or night.
Another opportunity to tap the power of relaxed attention occurs each morning — and you don’t even have to get out of bed. When you are awakened from a deep sleep, such as when your alarm goes off, you may find yourself in a half-conscious state between waking and dreaming, which is a perfect moment for relaxed attention. (We’ve used this half-dreaming state to come up with any number of new solutions and fresh ideas.)
Re-purpose that snooze button on your alarm. Start thinking of it as a “muse button,” so that you leverage those first precious moments of the day.
Try it a few times: when your alarm goes off, just press the “muse button,” and for the next five minutes, let your brain wander in a state of relaxed attention, working in an unfocused way on some challenge or problem that you have been wrestling with. With a little practice, you’ll be able to discover some fresh insights before your day even begins.
In the demimonde of video games, the level of challenge and reward rises proportionately with a gamer’s skills; moving forward always requires concentrated effort, but the next goal is never completely out of reach. This contributes to what author, futurist, and game designer Jane McGonigalcalls “urgent optimism”: the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, motivated by the belief that you have a “reasonable hope of success.”
Gamers always believe that an “epic win” is possible; that it is worth trying, and trying now, over and over again. In the euphoria of an epic win, gamers are shocked to discover the extent of their capabilities. As you move from level to level, success can flip your mindset to a state of creative confidence.
We’ve all seen this kind of persistence and gradual mastery of skills in children — from toddlers learning to walk to kids learning how to shoot a basketball. Tom Kelley witnessed urgent optimism in action one Christmas morning when his teenage son Sean opened up a Tony Hawk skateboard video game and started trying it out. In addition to the usual on-screen action, the game comes with a controller that looks exactly like a real skateboard, minus the wheels. So there was Sean, balancing on a full-sized skateboard in the family room, surrounded by three generations of Kelleys.
The family watched failure after failure as Sean’s character on screen smashed into brick walls, skidded off of railings, and collided with other skaters. Potentially more embarrassing, Sean himself fell off the skateboard controller several times, nearly crashing through the glass coffee table beside him on the floor. But neither the on-screen calamities nor the occasional loss of balance in the physical world phased Sean one bit.
In the social context of the gaming world, he wasn’t really failing — despite the noisy on-screen sound effects of his spectacular falls. Sean knew that he was on a path to learning. In fact, since reading about a video game is not much help, he was on essentially the only path available to gaining expertise.
By adapting the best attributes of gaming culture, maybe we can shift people’s view of failure, and ratchet up their willingness and determination to persevere. We just need to hold out a “reasonable hope of success,” as well as the possibility of a truly epic win.
For example, in working with colleagues or in a team, we’ve found that if team members believe that every idea gets fair consideration, and that a meritocracy allows their proposals to be judged across divisional and hierarchical lines, they tend to put all of their energy and their creative talents to work on ideas and proposals for change. They work harder, persist longer, and maintain their urgent optimism when they believe victory is just around the corner.
All innovators need to make creative leaps: What need should you focus on? Which idea do you go with? What should you prototype? That is where experience and intuition come in.
In his blog Metacool, Diego Rodriguez says that design thinkers often use “informed intuition” to identify a great insight, a key need, or a core feature. In other words, relentless practice creates a database of experience that you can draw upon to make more enlightened choices.
When it comes to expertise in bringing new stuff into the world, Diego argues that the number of product cycles you’ve gone through (what he calls “mileage”) trumps the number of years of experience. A 20-year veteran of the auto industry who works several years on each new vehicle before it goes to market might have experienced far fewer cycles than a software developer working just two years on mobile apps that ship every couple of months.
Going through enough rapid innovation cycles brings familiarity with the process and confidence in the ability to assess new ideas and features. And that confidence results in reduced anxiety in the face of ambiguity when bringing new ideas into the world.
Reprinted from the book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by Tom Kelley and David Kelley. Copyright 2013 by David Kelley and Tom Kelley. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.
Originally posted on: Wired