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Tease Your Brain to Think Divergently

Real talk: Imagine going about your daily business without your smartphone. Apps. Music. Pics. Happiness. And, you can use it to call grandma. They’re all there, right in the palm of your hand. When my iPhone goes missing, I will invariably try to call an emergency search party — except I can’t because I don’t have a phone. Smartphones have become an integral part of our bodies (think phone, wallet, keys) and when we don’t have them, we feel a teeny-tiny bit dead inside.

Now let’s think back to a simpler time, say, 25 years ago. No one knew that they needed a smartphone. That is, until the iPhone was introduced and we collectively realized that we all had to have one. Sure, there were cellular phones and other mobile devices that predate the iPhone, but it wasn’t until Steve Jobs unveiled the world’s first multi-touch smartphone-slash-handheld-computing device at the 2007 Macworld Conference & Expo that we suddenly could no longer imagine our lives without such a life-changing thing. The same can be said today about Uber, Spotify, AirBnB, and Netflix, to name just a few.

What all of these innovations have in common is that they provided solutions for problems that few people, if any, knew existed or knew to ask for. Once these innovations were introduced into the world, they have become indispensable parts of our lives and critical to businesses worldwide.

While there is so much that we can learn from each of the ingenious products and services that seemingly came out of the blue to become essential to our lives, it’s worthwhile to focus on the divergent thinking that brought each of them to life.

Divergent thinking is the essence of creativity — the non-linear thought process that leads to creative problem-solving. A majority of the population is unable to innovate in this way, partly because linear thinking has long been a staple of traditional critical thinking, but mostly because many of us had divergent thinking beaten out of us when we were kids. According to Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, by George Land and Beth Jarman, only 2% of adults has the ability to think divergently. (Insert frowny-face emoji here.)

To put this into perspective, 98% of children ages 3 to 5 years old, in the same study, were identified as genius-level divergent thinkers. As age increases, the percent of divergent thinking decreases.

I would bet money that the majority of adult divergent thinkers are the creative geniuses that we all celebrate as visionaries — you know, the Steve Jobses of the world. In a world overcrowded with linear thinkers, we need to push more people to be a part of the 2%.

Luckily for us, creativity and divergent thinking are muscles that can be exercised and rebuilt over time. So let’s train and get our smart on.

Exercise #1: Incomplete Figures

Draw a line or two on a piece of paper, like the one below, then create something. Time yourself to see how many objects you can create within 60 seconds. To step up the creative challenge, do the exercise against a coworker and see who can create more.

Here are the best of what our team created.

Exercise #2: Alternative Uses

Find an ordinary object — a brick, for example. In two minutes, think of as many unexpected uses as possible for that object (for example, you could use that brick as a step, a paperweight, a driving aid, or a cheap dumbbell).

What about a paperclip? It could be used as a paperclip, a lock pick, a way to restart your router, or (if it were huge and hallow) it could be a tunnel/bridge.

No answer is a stupid one. Divergent thinkers don’t assume something is ordinary, they always ask, “Does this item need to be this item in the way that I know it?” The answer is a resounding, “No.” Your brick can be 20-feet high, if you want it to be, or can be made of steel.

Exercise #3: Practice Riddles

Everyone’s heard of riddles. Spend some time solving them. It’s a challenging way to come up with “out-of-the-box” solutions. http://www.doriddles.com/

Exercise #4: Remote Associations

Find a series of words and identify how they are alike. For example: cottage / swiss / cake. What do these words have in common? Cheese: Cottage cheese. Swiss cheese. Cheese cake.

OK, now your turn: http://www.remote-associates-test.com/

Not only are these games fun, but they also can fuel or jumpstart your creativity. Hopefully after a couple months, you will be able to come up with a solution as cool as Uber — something the world didn’t know it needed but now it can’t live without.