A good idea might seem like a good place to start. But an innovation is an opportunity to change lives for the better. Now, one might say, an innovation starts with a good idea. But the point to be made here, is that a true innovation, something that is both new and now, possessing novelty and originality, can only arise from a space where there is first no idea.
Einstein is often quoted as saying, “The same level of thinking that caused a problem can’t be used to solve it.” While I have been unable to actually locate where he said that, the attribution still works for me. Being stuck in a level of thinking, tied to fix ideas of how things should be or are, is a recipe for many things other than success.
Our biases and prejudices about the world we encounter shape every thought and perception of that world we have. For decades, the notion of a hard-wired brain prevailed, but as neuroscientists began to discover greater and greater neuroplasticity in our brains, it became clear, our thinking can change, our emotions can be rechanneled, and something new can emerge. In short, we are capable of changing the level of our thinking.
That capability requires us to first be able to let go of our fixed ideas. Not an easy or quick task. Some folks have based their entire careers on thinking they had in their 20s, and the thought of letting that go seems to bear a cost they are simply unwilling to give up.
The Nobel Laureate Physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, the man who theorized and ultimately named the quark – the fundamental building block of the atom, once told me, “No mathematician over the age of 25 ever came up with anything new.” Now this wasn’t just a slam against mathematicians. He was speaking from experience. His greatest discovery, and the one for which he won the Nobel Prize – the property of Strangeness, emerged when he was 23.
Getting beyond our fixed ideas is not just a matter of deciding to think differently. It requires us to allow the mind to rest within itself as if it were a blank canvas.
At a conference I recently attended on The Nature of Experience, Dr. Claudia Carello, founding director of the Center for the Ecological Study of Perception and Action at the University of Connecticut and her husband and colleague, Dr. Michael Turvey, laid out examples of the non-thinking and rather innovative solutions found by critters in nature who have no brains. One of the most amazing of these examples was the single-cell organism called, Difflugia tuberspiniferra, which constructed a rather ornate shell. http://tolweb.org/Difflugia/124487.
One might say that they actually had some form of innate fixed thinking that allowed them to solve the problems they did. But one must return to the notion that they have no brain from which that fixed thinking might arise. And consequently, from a fully human perspective, no mind. And yet they build what is ostensibly a beautiful and innovative solution to their need for housing.
I am not suggesting for a moment that we should all be lobotomized and relieved of our thinking capabilities. But rather than being a slave to them, we should learn to be in charge of them, so that among other things, real innovation might emerge.
The current literature is rife with examples of the power of how a simple tool like meditation can help redirect the pathways of our minds. Neuro-scientists like Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have found that we can positively shift the neural connections and increase gray matter concentration in our brains with just 8 weeks of meditation practice.
All this chatter about the benefit of mindfulness can be a bit overwhelming and confusing. One obvious bit of confusion is the misnomer of mindfulness itself. It’s not that our minds our full, but rather that we can bring our minds to a point of focus that will allow it to slow down our thinking and actually create perceptible gaps between those thoughts. The greater the practice the greater the gaps between our thoughts.
It is upon the blank canvas provided by those gaps, that place where no fixed ideas are currently residing, where the innovative mind can arise and paint the first dot of something new and now. This is precisely the different level of thinking that Einstein knew was required to solve the problems our minds have previously created.
We often associate innovation with the latest technological advances or the next breakthrough scientific cure, but innovation comes in all colors, shapes and sizes. It’s what elevates small businesses to reach a greater audience, art that uplifts our senses, and even our ability to relate to each other in a healthy and productive collaborative manner.
It is this ability to relate to another, unhindered by our fixed ideas that is crucial to the interactions out of which innovation often arises. When my fixed ideas clash with your fixed ideas, wars can start. But when my open canvas meets yours, we have the opportunity to create a masterpiece together.
Getting there requires a willingness to face that canvas and not run away by distracting ourselves with gadgets or the next shiny object. At the heart of this, is our ability to pay attention and stabilize these minds of ours that think they’re in control.
Great innovation can emerge when we liberate ourselves from what we think is our right answer.