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Divergent Thinking: You Do It Every Day

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Did you finish watching Sir Ken Robinson’s Lecture “Changing Educational Paradigms” and feel like you were ruined beyond help by your education – a lost cause who can’t and never will be able to master that elusive skill called divergent thinking? Think again.

J.P. Guilford, the psychologist who coined the term, defines divergent thinking in one sentence in his book Intelligence, Creativity, and their Educational Implications:

“The unique feature of divergent production is that a variety of responses is produced.”

That is, divergent thinking is simply generating many possibilities for what to do, how to do it, etc.

Now, in Robinson’s video he gave the typical example of thinking up as many uses for a paperclip as you can. You may have done this experiment in an Introduction to Psychology course. You may have come up with the average 10-15 answers.

But as Robinson points out, the people who come up with a billion answers are the people who break the rules – rules that to many of us seem implied. To some, it may feel like those great idea-generators have such long lists only because they’re being unreasonable. Well, we could all be unreasonable rule-breakers if we felt we had permission.

And there must be some benefit to this, or why else would everyone be talking about it? So, let’s give it a try.

Let’s take Dr. Kathryn W. Jablokow’s example from the Creativity, Innovation and Change MOOC. When you wake up in the morning, you have to decide what to eat for breakfast. You likely come up with a short list of a few reasonable possibilities.

  • Eggs
  • Cold Cereal
  • Oatmeal
  • Toast
  • Granola Bar

There you go. You did some divergent thinking. You do it every day.

Does this list seem too short? We want to be masters of divergent thinking who come up with hundreds of possibilities, right? All we need to do, then, is give ourselves permission to break the rules. Once we do that, we could go on forever.

  • Croissants from a café in Paris (Rule broken – It must be at hand, or at least in this city.)
  • Roast beef (Rule broken – Eat only breakfast food for breakfast)
  • Bald eagle (Rule broken – It must be legal.)
  • Kopi luwak (Rule broken – We must be able to afford it.)
  • Mock Porchetta (Rule broken – It must not take hours (or days) to prepare.)
  • Chicken and ice cream (Rule broken – It must taste good.)
  • A tin can (Rule broken – It must be food. i.e. We are not goats.)

Now, our list is still short, but you get the idea. As soon as we start breaking the rules, we can easily come up with hundreds, thousands, an infinite number of ideas. But what’s the use?

Is divergent thinking always helpful?

If we woke up every morning and just stood in the kitchen listing thousands of unreasonable breakfast ideas, we might never get around to eating.

And even Robert Frost, when faced with two diverging roads in the woods, only considered those two paths. He didn’t consider turning around or going off-path altogether. And he admits that the two paths were pretty much equal.

Sometimes we are better off generating a small number of possibilities. This doesn’t make us incapable of grand-scale divergent thinking. It means we’re able to distinguish between times when thinking outside the box will benefit us and times when it will drag us down.

So, we know that divergent thinking isn’t always best, and that at least in small amounts, we do it every day. We even did one activity that shows that we could, if we permitted ourselves to break the rules, come up with a long list of possibilities because we are such great thinkers.

How can we apply this to our lives?

Now that we know the rule – break all the rules – we should be able to pull out our skill whenever it seems appropriate. Practice a little disassumption to identify what rules you’re assuming you have to follow. Then break them. Break them all. (Well, maybe not the ones about staying within the confines of the law.)

You will surely come up with some crazy ideas. Many of them you’ll quickly recognize as not doable for a variety of reasons. But if you don’t list those 50 crazy ideas that will never work, you may never come up with those five truly inspired ideas that will lead to positive change.

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