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Industry POV

How Being Uncomfortable Can Be Your Best Creative Weapon

Riley Gibson, CEO of social innovation company Napkin Labs, talks about transcending creative comfort zones and creative surplus: molding the 21st century renaissance community.

Would it shock you if I told you that we’re ignoring our greatest creative resource every single day—even stifling it? What would you think if I told you that creative resource had nothing to do with what you do every day of your life?

For the sake of this article, let’s define creativity as the ability to solve problems in an unexpected or surprising way. Many of us may be in careers that are perceived as "creative": designers, developers, writers, or entrepreneurs. But we don’t force ourselves regularly to solve problems that are clearly out of our areas of expertise. That’s where we’re squandering our greatest creative resource. With routine, people tend to get stuck in patterned forms of thought. By forcing our minds out of our comfort zones, we can become a part of a more intellectually diverse crowd that helps us continue to learn and challenge our own assumptions.

This concept has been called a lot of things, but one of my favorites is "the curse of knowledge." As Chip and Dan Heath wrote, when we attempt to problem-solve within our own boundaries of expertise, even within our own companies, we assume others know what we do. Nothing is more dangerous. We become incapable of communicating clearly to others, and end up with an idea that goes nowhere.

So, how do we get out of our own way? By challenging ourselves to feel uncomfortable regularly, to solve problems we never would in our day jobs, or to take on projects where we really have no idea what we’re doing. In other words, make that uncomfortable feeling your new hobby. Sounds a little crazy, but other people and companies have experimented with this with great success.

For example, our team worked with Jonathon Parker, an MD/PhD student, on a design project for audio systems. He got a chance to collaborate with a group of mechanical engineers, designers, and artists (individuals he would have never been able to work with in the medical field) on a short-term idea-generation project. Jonathon humbly told us that he learned so much from the group, but he also provided key input on how the brain responded to audio signals—information they wouldn’t have thought of without his expertise. In this particular project, "wisdom of crowds" took on a whole new meaning.

Parker is a modern-day Renaissance Man. It’s easier than most of us think to become Renaissance Men and Women, even if the capacity to do out-of-bounds things doesn’t exist within our day jobs. It seems as if once every few months I see a new workout program that promises results within 30, 15, even 5 minutes of exercise. While I can’t attest to how effective these programs are for the body, the brain can be exercised in similar increments to challenge patterned forms of thought.

The web has an incredible capacity to connect all different kinds of creative people to form communities of diverse thinkers. As people who desire a greater connection with creativity, we can seek out these communities to do things we’d never expect to do—design the next package for a consumer good, write a jingle for a national ad campaign, or even re-sequence protein enzymes.

On the other end, as companies seeking out sources of creativity, we no longer have to resort to expensive focus groups and studies to test out concepts, or even come up with those concepts in the first place. If the web truly becomes a destination for all sorts of Renaissance Thinkers to exercise their creativity, there’s an amazing untapped creative resource just waiting to be challenged.

So, welcome to the 21st Century Renaissance Community, where your grandmother is learning to code and your colleague in accounting is inspiring the next beverage flavor. What are you doing to make yourself feel uncomfortable today?

Riley Gibson is the cofounder and CEO of Napkin Labs, a startup that builds tools to help companies turn their Facebook fans into an army of collaborators for new insights and ideas. For more thoughts on tapping online communities for innovation, check out the Napkin Labs blog.

[Image: boroda, Hannamariah, and javarman via Shutterstock]