Ever felt that you didn’t have the necessary tools to solve a problem or come up with a new idea? Maybe you thought you didn’t have the right information or you were missing something that was necessary to move forward. Perhaps you thought you weren’t creative enough. It brought back memories of teachers in school telling you that creativity is not really your thing.
When you think of a hammer, you think of using it as a paper weight right? You consider using it to pull out nails from a surface. Or using it as a weapon against burglars who barge into your home. Maybe you think of hanging it on the wall of your living room, (especially if it’s worn down and looks vintage), to give it that rustic feeling you’re going for.
The hammer can also be used to soften previously frozen red meat, break a crab or lobster to access the juicy tender pieces of meat. You can use it as a lock for a door, as a door holder, attach it to a door and make it a door knob, use it like a judge and bang it on the table when people in your home are too noisy or swing it around like a kettlebell and do some exercises with it.
But you didn’t think of those first did you? You thought of hammering a nail into a wall.
Psychologists call this functional fixedness. In providing labels they allow us to communicate ideas in a more efficient way. But this same labeling does something else. It makes it harder for us to mistake what it is, what it does, and limits the way we think about it. When you think of a hammer, you think of a hammer and its function. The most commonly used function. This holds our creativity back.
Functional fixedness can come in different forms. It’s seen when you go to the grocery store and buy different products for specific things. You buy detergent to wash your dishes, soap for your hands, detergent for your clothes, soap for your body, facewash for your face. Lots of products are specialists, focusing on one area and serving a specific purpose. Then there are products like hydrogen peroxide, vinegar, and baking soda that have multiple uses. They’re used for cleaning your house and clothing, as mouthwash, for treating cuts and wounds, and that’s a small sample. These are the generalist products. Sometimes they work better than the specialists.
Functional fixedness focuses on depth rather than breadth. This makes it similar to divergent thinking (many possibilities) and the opposite of convergent thinking (only one possibility). Functional fixedness works at times. But sometimes we need to let go of it in order to create new ideas and think in a different way. If not, we can get stuck in a rut. The rut is the place where our thinking and creativity plateau. They stagnate. While it’s not a good feeling, the rut allows for us to take a step back and reflect. It provides the opportunity to look at what we previously thought, in a different light. The benefit is that we often step out of it with new perspectives and a greater understanding of the issue.
We think of cars as forms of transportation. To move from one place to the other. But is that the only function they serve? John Paul DeJoria (founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila) started his company while living in a 20 year old Rolls Royce. You see people travelling in old Volkswagen vans that have been fixed up with beds, kitchens, and more amenities so they can live in them. They don’t pay rent. They pay gas and parking fees. They can move from place to place and change their panoramic view every day of the week.
You can use the car’s engine to power a home. You don’t even need to drive it. Is it efficient or practical? Maybe not. But the idea is to consider how something can be used in different ways. A bed can be used as a couch, a desk, a table. Attach some wooden planks, some wheels, some boards and get a horse to pull it and you’ve got a cart. Cut it into pieces and you’ve got cushions, pillows, or a bunch of small seats or foot rests. Cut it up and take out all the padding and soundproof your room, your home, and make a music studio.
“To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Our homes end up with a bunch of junk we don’t need. Our garages full of things we used only one time or never because we didn’t like it, need it, or forgot about it as time passed. Our computers have a bunch of files and programs we don’t use. Our closets are overflowing with shoes and clothes we won’t ever use, we don’t like, and that don’t fit us anymore. We have an abundance of things we don’t need and we’re lacking what we do need.
We often fight one extreme by going in the opposite direction. But in doing that we end up with more of the same problems. Sometimes we have to add tools to our tool belt. Other moments, we have to subtract because we no longer have a need for it. They’re just taking up space. They can serve someone else better. We have to see functional fixedness for what it is. Sometimes it helps us and sometimes it’s limiting.
By subtracting, we end up adding to our life.
We can work on using what we already have for multiple purposes. We need to think of other uses for the hammer, so it can solve more problems and improve our creativity. Think of all the uses you can for what you already have. This will increase the functional value of what you already possess. You’ll be recycling what you have, turning it into something new, and getting more mileage from it.
Funny enough, that’s also how great ideas are born. But let’s hear it from someone who knew what he was talking about:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
It’s useful to apply this to ideas and knowledge as well. This is the thinking behind the interdisciplinary approach to life. You’re able to take concepts from one field or subject and apply them to other areas that seem unrelated. Because you’ve developed deep understanding of the concept, you can see the relationships, the interconnectedness, and new applications available. This opens the door to original thinking. It’s another example of how knowledge can transfer from one area to another, serve multiple purposes, and provide different perspectives.
Consider how our language and the words we choose also influence how we think. When we think of “hammering something”, we don’t think of using a book, a rock, or the bottom of our shoe. We think of a hammer, especially when the word is in the phrase. To change the way we think, it can be as simple as changing the words we use.
In doing this we avoid putting ourselves in boxes and develop our ability to “Think different”.
The following strategies can help you get more from what you have and ten-fold your creativity:
- Put it to another use. Think of all the ways something can be used (ideas and objects). All the purposes it can serve. Write them all down without editing. Just write everything you can think of until you can’t think of any more ideas. Set a time limit as well to add some pressure. Then go through the list and rate the ideas you came up with. The more you wrote down, the higher probability for good ideas. Now go and test them some of them.
- Take an object or idea and break it down into smaller parts. What role does each part play and what else could it be used for?
- Use the Generic Parts Technique (Anthony McCaffrey, UMASS Cognitive researcher). Break something down into parts and ask yourself if there is a use that is implied. If there is, keep breaking it down until there’s no implied use in the term. This could include the material, shape, the size. When you start to remove the functions of an object or an idea, you can start to notice other possibilities. McCaffrey says that most innovative solutions follow two steps. They notice an obscure feature and they use that feature to form solutions to problems.
- Change the language or words. Use synonyms or completely different words to alter how you think about something.
- Forget the rules and the instruction manual and create your own.