In the odd world of quantum physics, things appear to exist in a multitude of states – describable only as the set of probabilities known as a wave function – until tipped into a definite outcome by an act of ‘measurement’. An electron or atom (and some would even argue the whole Universe) remains an open field of possibilities until forced into an interaction. It is as if the physical world wants to explore many alternative pathways before collapsing into a settled state.
This is just what the creative human mind does. Your thoughts exist in a multitude of different states in your conscious and unconscious states all floating in an open field of possibilities until tipped into a definite direction by being forced into random interactions with other thoughts. This is where “random” stimuli come into play. Then the creative mind samples many paths and outcomes before it conceptually blends interesting thoughts together and then collapses into a coherent state which is your logical stream of thought and produces an idea.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous French philosopher, did his best thinking on trips he made alone and on foot, which he called thought walks. Similarly, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the brilliant German author, took a walk whenever he wanted to think and come up with new ideas. It was during his long hikes in the mountains of Berchtesgaden that Sigmund Freud worked out his imposing structure of the unconscious, preconscious and conscious that has bound the twentieth-century psyche ever since. In fact he told his good friend, Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin doctor, that his book The Interpretation of Dreams was designed to have the effect of one of his hikes through a concealed pass in a dark forest until it opens out on a view of the plain. Taking a walk stimulated and refreshed their thinking.
Whenever you’re deeply involved with a problem, take a thought walk. You will find walking around your neighborhood, a shopping mall, a park, the woods, industrial complex and so on to be highly stimulating. Look for interesting objects, situations, or events that are interesting or that can be compared with whatever project you happen to be working on. For example, suppose your problem is how to improve communications in your company. You take a walk and notice potholes in the road. How are “potholes” like your corporate communication problem? For one thing, if potholes are not repaired, they get bigger and more dangerous. Usually road crews are assigned to repair the potholes. Similarly, unless something is done to improve corporate communications, it’s likely to deteriorate even further. An idea with a similar relation to “road crews” is to assign someone in the organization to fill the role of “communications coach.” The role would entail educating, encouraging, and supporting communication skills in all employees. And just as road crews are rotated, you can rotate the assignment every six months.
A more creative thought walk is to forget about your problem and simply list objects or experiences that you found interesting. For example, children skipping rope, a drinking fountain that hasn’t worked in years, roofers tarring a roof, a child counting the jelly beans in a jar of jelly beans, a traffic cop writing a ticket, and so on. When you return, draw a picture of the object or experience and list all of its characteristics. Then list all the associations you can think of between each characteristic and your problem. Make forced connections. Ask questions such as:
How is this like my problem?
What if my problem were a…?
What are the similarities?
This….is like the solution to my problem because…?
How is …like an idea that might solve my problem?
Think metaphorically. Make as many metaphors as you can between objects and experiences and the subject. Look for similarities and similar circumstances. Look for ways to transfer principles and similar circumstances from what you observed and your subject. Try to build at least one idea or solution from each metaphor. Ask yourself what new insights the metaphors provide as to how to solve the problem.
An entrepreneur wanted to invent a novel product to produce and market through his clothing stores. He would aimlessly wander the streets and note things that interested him for no particular reason. One day when he started his walk, the sky was bright blue and the sun was bright. He noticed an umbrella with a transparent cover that he thought was clever. As the day went on, the sky darkened and it rained. He returned to his store drenched. He thought of the sky changing color and the umbrella and conceptually blended them into a new idea. He invented an umbrella with a handle that lets you know the weather forecast by illuminating the handle in different colors. Light patterns indicate rain, drizzle, snow or thunderstorms. The handle automatically receives local weather data over the wireless from AccuWeather.
In another example, two designers were walking together down a street when they stopped by the site for Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower in New York City. The spire of the building is planned to be 1,776 feet high – 1776 was the year when the United States Declaration of Independence was drafted. They liked the idea of using invisible information to generate visible forms that have meaning. Next they noticed a sweater with a computer generated space invader design. Conceptually blending the computer generated designed sweater with the freedom tower inspired their idea. They came up with voice knitting where audio input (a song or a voice) is translated into a simple visual form to give a sweater or other piece of clothing its own unique style and vocal fingerprint.
Thought walks give you a way to connect the unconnected that can inspire the thoughts and insights you cannot get using your conventional way of thinking.