You want to be creative? Don’t be in a network

“Shock comes when different things meet. It’s the interface that’s interesting” ~Rene Fortou

Photo courtesy of nhuisman

We should be past the misconception that history’s great inventions are but the results of a thorough lone genius’ mind process. Steven Johnson’s TED talk explains why better than I ever can. Johnson actually argues that “if you want to be creative, be in a network”. But the truth is, being in a network is not enough, if you actually want to be creative, don’t be in a network, be in several!

“Kind of LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our castles will become. Because if we only have one color and one shape, it greatly limits how much we can create, even within our one area of expertise.” ~Maria Popova

Great ideas come from cross-pollination, a combinatory process that remixes ideas from different backgrounds to give birth to novel ones. How much exposure you have to various ideas determines how creative you can be. Ronald Burt was the first one to connect good ideas to “structural holes”. These white spaces are the gaps between groups. People connected across these groups, who cross those gaps, are more familiar with alternative ways of thinking and behaving. They can juggle and appreciate divergent outlooks and multiple realities. Hence, they are more prone to have a vision of options otherwise unseen. In a network perspective it actually boils down to “Location, location, location”. 

We all want to be creative, but few of us ever consider managing our networks to get there. The truth is, networks are so ubiquitous in our lives that we don’t think of them consciously. We need to change that. We need to instill a new habit, a kind of Network consciousness where we strategically plan our next move to enhance our location in the networks (social, informational, professional…). Here are some suggestions that I found to make a great deal of difference:

1. Idea wading: A concept I came across in Tom Kelley’s “Art of innovation“. It suggests that you expose yourself to new ideas by going through magazines, books and websites on farther fields than your own. Browsing the aisles at the bookstore and making a practice of looking at sections you’ve never checked out before. “You’d be surprised at how much you can learn about the latest trends by scanning titles and book jackets”

2. Reaching out of your social bubble: Going to event outside your normal sphere can enhance your exposure to new ideas. If you are a techy, try going to modern art expositions, literature events etc. Mingle with people with social science, philosophy, quantum mechanics backgrounds. The furthest you go outside that filter bubble you unconsciously locked yourself into, the better chances you have to come out with unique ideas.  

3. Never miss a chance for a new experience: Spend your money wisely. Material things have a short life span, experiences on the other hand are life-long companions. Make it a point to try a new experience whenever the chance presents itself. An Arabic class? A travel to a multicultural destination? Anything that widens your range of interests is welcome.

4. Always look for fresh blood: we are people of habit, we seek the comfort of familiar faces, of people who share our world view. There is nothing wrong with that. Greatest opportunities of growth though come from reaching out and connecting with those whose views are very different than ours. Intellectual diversity is a great creativity catalyst. Let’s then make it a point not to shun away from those who challenge us intellectually.  

Each network you reach out to gives you access to a whole new reality you may have been oblivious to. The more exposure you get, the more your mind expands and the more creative you can be. Do you consciously take steps to be more creative? How effective are they?

Lamia Ben.