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Nick Skillicorn

CEO & Founder, Innovation Coach at Improvides
Voted as the world's #7 Innovation blogger in 2014, I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love.

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Nick Skillicorn
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Children are often told that ‘curiosity killed the cat’. That it’s inherently dangerous. But because of the way our brains are hardwired, exploring your curiosity is one of the best ways to enhance your creativity and develop new innovations.

I’ve always been a curious person, wanting to know as much as possible about how the world worked. In fact, while I was in school some of my teachers needed to put a limit on the number of questions I was allowed to ask (yes, I was one of those kids).

But it’s only been recently that scientists are beginning to understand the benefits of an inquisitive mind to its ability to generate valuable new ideas. But before I tell you exactly why, let me ask you some questions:

  1. How much does a shadow weigh?
  2. How much money is love worth?
  3. Where do trees get their mass from?
  4. What is a candle flame made from?
  5. Why don’t animals have wheels?
  6. Is there a limit to the number of songs we can imagine?

These are just some of the questions raised by two Edutainers I’ve recently fallen in love with on Youtube: Derek Muller from Veritasium (playlist above) and Michael Stevens from Vsauce (playlist below).

 

If you watch their videos, one thing which will quickly strike you is that the topics being discussed have almost no practical application to your life. When most people have a question, what they are searching for is a specific solution or answer to a challenge they are facing (questions like: what mortgage rates can I get? How do I increase traffic to my website? How can I innovate like Apple?). Most of the videos here provide almost no practical solutions to any challenge you’re likely to face (unless you are trying to go faster than the speed of light). But rather than helping people find solutions, what they are in fact doing is appealing to the part of the brain which seeks to gain knowledge just for the joy of it.

What does curiosity have to do with creativity and innovation?

There are two predominant ways in which curiosity helps to breed creativity, so let’s look at each in turn:

Neuroscience: Curiosity brings more knowledge to build new idea connections

At a fundamental level, an idea is when your brain forms new connections between existing groups of memories and experiences. All ideas are therefore built up from previous knowledge and other ideas. The accepted process nowadays in neuroscience and psychology describing how ideas are generated is as follows:

  1. Preparation: Your mind gathering all the information (knowledge, the challenge at hand, context, memories, previous ideas etc) which will ultimately build the idea
  2. Incubation: Your mind subconsciously trying out new connections between these pieces of information, until one combination could potentially lead to a solution to the challenge. Check out my previous interview for more detail on this stage.
  3. Illumination / Inspiration: The brain makes itself consciously aware of the idea (often known as the eureka moment when the idea comes out of nowhere)
  4. Verification: The brain doing a quick test on the idea to see if it will really solve the challenge

Someone with a curious mindset is more likely to seek out new knowledge, which not only provides more information for the preparation (stage 1), it also gives the brain the regular exercise in creating new connections which strengthens its ability to incubate (stage 2).

Just as importantly, they’re also more likely to be interested in gaining knowledge across a variety of domains, not just the one they specialise in. Gaining variety in knowledge is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your ability to generate new ideas, since it extends the ways in which the brain can form new connections. It’s also a way to cross-pollinate ideas with other different people, which often results in finding solutions to challenges in places you weren’t expecting.

Getting comfortable with ambiguity and questioning your own knowledge

One of the Veritasium videos which originally inspired me to write this article set people the following challenge: Look at the sequence of three numbers below:

Can-You-Solve-This-Veritasium

Challenge: I am thinking of the rule that makes the above sequence work. Can you name another set of three numbers that also meet the rule in my head?

Go on, take a minute, and figure out as many as you can.

Ok, now here’s the question. Assuming all your answers were correct (because we’re all smart people here in the Improvides community), how do you know whether or not they fit the rule that I’m thinking of? Here’s the full video to see what I mean:

What I think this beautifully illustrates is that the vast majority of work in the business world, and even the creative world, seeks to adhere to what those individuals and companies know works for them. And if they do go out to seek new information, in most cases they are looking for information which confirms what they already know. This is known as confirmation bias, and is quite deadly in the world of innovation as it leads to people ignoring information about things which are happening in your industry or customer base.

A ‘No’ answer can often provide you with much information than a ‘Yes’ as it will lead you to different reasons than you would likely think of yourself

There is also the equal danger of your own expertise in a subject blinding you to alternatives. A Harvard study called ‘The Experience Trap’ found that the more experience an expert had in a subject, the more difficult they found it to adjust their behaviour and actions when things didn’t go to plan. Their brain has become so used to using the same mental models on autopilot for their work that it actually made them less creative when faces with a challenge in their domain of expertise, since the brain found it difficult moving away from what it knew ‘worked’.

Curiosity is a trait which helps people become more comfortable with ambiguity, and realising that there might be knowledge out there which they don’t have yet, or even knowledge which they aren’t aware of (the known unknowns and unknown unknowns as the military put it). In general, curious people are willing to try new things and experiment in new ways, which ultimately make for ideas which are fundamentally different to what has worked in the past.

So I encourage you to go out into the world and try something new today. Do something just for the sake of getting some different knowledge and experiences. It may just lead to your next big idea.

What are your favorite sources of interesting new facts, especially videos? Let me know in the comments below