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]

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  • Tatiana Lyons

    The concept of "Getting out of your own way" is very powerful -- something I've been using for a long time to mix it up and help our teams. How do you find solutions from sources that you wouldn't have even thought about? How can you be inspired/innovative/edgy if you're using familiar patterns to try and come up with something novel? 

    Call it getting uncomfortable, taking risks, thinking out of the is about leaving behind what no longer serves you, and really getting creative.

  • Jack Hipple

    It's a shame that there is no recognition or awareness of the "TRIZ" Inventive Problem Solving process, which is over 50 years old and is a methodical, sturctured version of what is described here. When we study the patent literature (which is where we document brekthrough creativity and innvoation) we can find only 40 inventive principles that are used over and over again across hunmdreds of different areas of industry and technology. The barrier to seeing someone else's solution to a problem is the special language and jargon we use to make us THINK our problem is special and unique. It seldom is. We don't need to randomly search the world and the Internet. We need to do it in a systematic way as demosntrated by the TRIZ algorithm.

  • Nadene Canning

    BiG YeS - not new granted but challenging non the less to
    Facilate NeW thinking. Co-creating with applied improvisational
    Theater is one really fun way to get folks working outside their cushy comfort zone and see the poTential of nEw ways of Being and Doing.

  • Peter A. Arthur-Smith

    This another Internet solution to innovation, when most innovation facilitators know that the most effective way to stimulate innovation is in well run, face-to-face meetings. The outcome, despite the time, effort and investment in such forums, far outweighs any on-line modes. Peter Arthur-Smith  

  • Riley Gibson

    Hi Douglas - I am glad you liked the post.  It is true that we tend to view fear as being a bad thing, but anyone pushing the boundaries faces fear.  Love the quote by the way!

  • JG Limited

    How about NOT getting any sleep as my partner & I fiddle with making our new website work seamlessly with EVERYTHING

  • SzymonM

    Come on guys, this is not a big discovery. This is just another way of performing brain storm session where you put yourself and 'web' into a group members. Read Also note that most of both advantages and disadvantages of this method do apply.

  • Riley Gibson

    It's not a big discovery, but it is a very important evolution of an age old principle.  The web is removing all limitations of physical proximity, and that is opening up the scope for who can collaborate. This evolution is important.  Is is changing the future of work and collaboration.

  • Alexander Patterson

    So true. Staring at your Mac all day is pointless. But do look for the patterns in the madness, and do catalog them as you go. Cheers

  • Manifornothing

    Always thought I'm a bit looney but today after reading your piece I'm convinced I'm just a Renaissance man. Always given up the warm couch for the hard road, the high paying job for the balls in your mouth adventure, tried for the untested. Thanks for the inspiring piece.

  • Billie

    Definately an interesting concept where someone from a different sphere entirely can shed a different light and perspective.  Defo the way forward is to connect completely diverse people and ideas and come to know the same place from a different angle.  Billie

  • Douglas Eby

    Thanks for your stimulating post. One variety of feeling uncomfortable is fear. “Fear is good. We view fear as a disease. It’s not a disease.” Psychologist Robert Maurer / “I don’t do anything anymore that feels safe. If it doesn’t scare the crap out of you, then you’re not doing the right thing.” Sandra Bullock

  • Carmen

    This is excatly what the Medici Effect advocates, and makes eminent sense.
    To get this kind of random diversity check out The Bigheads Network.