In nearly every book I write, I struggle with one question: What is keeping the couple apart? What? What? WHAT? Often, I write half the book (the falling in love half), and then I hold my nose and jump, praying that my subconscious will catch me….
And usually, it’s a long way down.
What I need is a breakthrough, a new thought that has never occurred to me before, and has quite possibly never occurred to anybody. I have no idea when the new thought will pop up, no idea what it will look like. What I do know is that I can’t force it to appear. Creative problem-solving–which drives forward everything from education, to science, to public policy, to international relations–is not taught to us in school. We seldom see it modeled, but we live the results every time we pick up a well written book, drive a well made car, use a prescription drug, or pull a relationship through a knothole.
Fortunately, some people smarter than I am have focused on breakthrough thinking, and what makes it more likely to happen. The Net and the Butterfly, a lovely book summarized by the authors in this video, gives us a few clues about how to approach sticky mental problems.
First, get plenty of rest. Great work goes on in the brain when we sleep, combining what we know with what we need to figure out. Second, get plenty of new mental stimulation–read widely, talk to a few well chosen strangers, walk a mile in new surrounds or in somebody else’s shoes. Wear different clothes, try different foods. Novelty, variety and creativity are great bedfellows.
Third, foster hobbies that absorb you in ways your work routine doesn’t–read, crochet, go fishing, take a stroll (scientists apparently favor this one)–find things to do that give your mind a chew toy without taking up all your mental capacity.
In short, we are most likely to make breakthroughs with difficult problems when we… play. Goof off, follow rabbit trails, indulge an impulse, commit a random act of kindness, read a new author in a new genre, and relax enough to enjoy the frolics anddetours.
So I do this, and the answers come–eventually–but it makes me aware of the societal forces I battle because breakthrough thinking is critical to my livelihood. When as a society, we need creativity and insight the most, we’re busy working one of the longest work weeks in the developed world, taking the fewest vacation days, going short of sleep, and holding down multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Maybe we’d all be better off we built recess into every day, no matter who we are or what our calling is.
How do you build in mind-wandering time? How do you vary your routine or take small risks in the name of bolstering your creativity and problem-solving abilities? Or have you devised a different approach to solving the thorny problems? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Marquesses at the Masquerade.