Doing Nothing to Enhance Creativity

Doing Nothing to Enhance CreativityWe are in such a fast paced society that we are always focused on achieving our goals. In business, these goals might be hitting quarterly earnings targets, sales quotas, or operating budgets. Even innovation initiatives are goal-driven. We measure ideas generated, time-to-market, and percent of revenue from new products.

We are indeed a goal-driven society. And there is nothing wrong with that. But there are times when this obsession can be counter-productive.

In previous posts, I’ve talked extensively about the “Performance Paradox”. This is the phenomenon whereby a hyper-focus on your goals is the very thing that prevents you from achieving them. Dan Pink also wrote about this concept in his recent book, Drive.

Yesterday it was a beautiful, sunny day here in Boston, so I decided to walk the ocean near where I live. I spent most of my time walking up and down the beach, listening to my iPod, and eating a delicious lobster roll. As I started to walk back home, I decided to walk into the water and just stand there. I did nothing for about 20 minutes. The picture above is what I looked at (you can click on it for a larger version). I just stood there. My mind wandered. At first I wondered what others were thinking of my “statue-like” position. Then my mind drifted towards work…in particular the marketing efforts for my new book, Personality Poker. I let my mind meander, but I stayed focus on the book. After about 5 minutes, a flood of ideas started to come through. By the end of the 20 minutes, I had more ideas than I had in the previous few weeks.

I have been incredibly busy lately. And I never felt I had the time to reflect. But what I realized very quickly was that I needed to detach myself from my goals in order to help me achieve the goal of a New York Times best seller. The more I hyper-focused on the work I needed to do, the less it seemed I could develop new ideas and solutions.

As I walked back home, I realized very quickly that the phenomenon I experienced is something I had written about many times before. I forgot the value of doing nothing.

In my book, Goal-Free Living, when discussing the process for clearing the mind, I wrote…

The word Mushin is used extensively in Japan. It means silent mind, empty mind. A mind that is void of thought patterns and mental chatter. The ability to listen to that inner voice is critical on the journey to self-awareness. It is said that Aristotle used to lie in bed with a ball in his hand so that when he would fall asleep the ball would drop and bang a copper plate below. The noise would wake him up, keeping him in a quasi state of sleep and consciousness. This is where he generated his best ideas and insights.

In Personality Poker (due in stores November 2010), I provided some of the neuroscience behind this…

A particular area of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is most active during conscious thought. This is among the most advanced parts of the brain, parts which separate us from other animals that cannot analyze and calculate the way humans can. However, when we are in a state of “flow,” this part of the brain is quiet, and we move into a more playful mindset. Flow casts the human brain back to a more primitive state where thoughts and sensations come through without being controlled, judged, or censored. Anyone who meditates knows what it’s like to be in this state, as the purpose of meditation is to go behind the judgmental veil of that prefrontal cortex and enter a state of flow. When the conscious part of the brain is activated, the flow state is interrupted. Interestingly, in children, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, which allows them a more natural state of play.

Research by Northwestern University neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman shows that people who are in a good mood not only tap into different parts of the brain, but also solve more problems through “flashes of insight.” Playfulness helps to put us in a good mood and enjoy a more relaxed frame of mind. Studies have shown that people in this state generate more unusual ideas when brainstorming. This explains why we get so many good ideas while showering or half-dozing; a relaxed frame of mind is conducive to insight, helping us bring forth new knowledge or ideas without forcing them. Like playfulness and a positive mood, the “drowsy” brain induces a relaxed state and encourages insights. How many times have you been bombarded by an amazing idea or thought, or solved a problem in your mind just seconds before falling asleep? This “stroke of genius” is a flash of insight thanks to your brain’s calm state.

I realize that businesses are designed to provide financial returns to the shareholders. And as a result, there is a lot of goal-setting going on.

But in order to achieve long-term goals, innovation is a must. And one component of innovation is the development of creative ideas. And sometimes the best way to develop those new insights is to stop focusing on innovation.

So, take time to do nothing. Sit and stare out the window. Relax. Meditate.

And if your boss asks you what you are doing, tell him/her, “I am quieting my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in order to be more innovative.”

I’m sure after that, they will stop asking you questions.

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Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.

Stephen Shapiro




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No Comments

  1. Mitch Ditkoff on July 20, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Right on, Steven. The power of nothing. Lao Tzu was all over this, as were centuries worth of zen masters. I see the same need everywhere I go. In a few days I will be blogging about this very same topic: “The Braincalm Before the Brainstorm” — all about the empty space before anything happens, kind of like you standing in the ocean and letting your mind go. Bruce Lee was also very much into this nothingness that is everything. When hungry-to-learn students approached him later in life he told them there were no techniques — that they just had to respond in the moment. Ultimately, that’s the deal. I look forward to reading your book. I see no reason why it won’t be a NYT best seller. (Do you get into what’s BEHIND or BEYOND personality?)

  2. Matt Cardin on July 20, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Excellent post! Kind of synchronicitous, too, since I just came from reading “The Benefits of Losing Control” ( at Lateral Action, which has a distinct crossover value with what you’re saying here.

    Time and again as I’ve pursued my creative projects over the years, I’ve rediscovered and demonstrated to myself the value of the precise point you’re making here. For me, creative work (I’m a writer, musician, and teacher) follows a distinct systolic/diastolic alternation between intense action and effort and intense inaction and relaxation. Learning to surf those waves so that the whole cycle ends up producing maximum beneficial results has been an ongoing self-education. Personally, I’ve found incalculable help in adopting the view, which I hold half fictionally and half literally (in other words, all mythically), that the creative drive is an external force akin to a real muse, daimon, or genius. In other words, the view explored by Elizabeth Gilbert in her wildly popular TED talk from early 2009, and by me at my Demon Muse blog.

    I also find help in insightful posts like the present one. So again, many thanks. It looks like your Goal Free Living is a book I’ll definitely have to check out, since I, like Mitch (whose “Braincalm before the Brainstorm” post I’ll look forward to reading), have grooved forever to the Zen/Taoist expression of such things. I’m also a lifelong Bruce Lee fan of epic proportions, and I often use, e.g., his analysis of the learning process as an experience of integrating new knowledge and skills into your natural and organic life responses when I’m talking to my own students. So this post and Mitch’s response are just chock-full of interest for me.

  3. Stephen Shapiro on July 25, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    Mitch and Matt…Thanks for chiming in.

    Mitch, I do talk a bit about what is behind/beyond personality. I don’t get into the psychological aspects of where it came from. But I did create an “implicit association test” with Harvard that helps understand the subconscious mind. I also talk about how the perceptions of others influences your own personality (the Pygmalion effect). All interesting (IMHO)…

    Matt, any fan of Bruce Lee is a friend of mine. When I wrote Goal-Free Living, it was so funny to see the reaction. Some people hated it. But we are in a goal-obsessed society, so I should not have been surprised. But people who were studier of Eastern philosophies (Buddhism in particular) found it resonated with them.

    I do think it interesting that in our pursuit of success, we sometimes take on counter-productive habits. Being present, keeping an open mind, and remaining relaxed are proven to help performance. Instead, we obsess about the future, become cynical/closed minded, and stress out.


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