6 Ways To Boost Your Divergent Thinking Skills

6 Ways To Boost Your Divergent Thinking Skills

Everyone. Must. Watch. Sherlock.

Did you know that the most common word people used to describe themselves on LinkedIn last year was “creative”?


I seem to have missed that moment when the entire global economy turned into one big, bohemian silicon valley party where we all wear expensive trainers and work out of coffee shops attached to theatres. (But it would explain Apple’s amazing Q4 results so who knows?)

Two contributing factors are implicated in this trend.

The first, for the last two decades we’ve had television and self help telling us that we are all indeed creative. Eventually some of that is going to stick.

Secondly, “creative” tends to be a catch-all word for what is undoubtedly a professional advantage in the post-industrial age. “Divergent thinking”, the ability to think non-logically, is probably a more accurate term in this instance.

It’s at the heart of creative enterprise, problem solving, commercial innovation and -ultimately- a cornerstone of personal happiness.

Trouble is… we suck at it.

A research piece promoted by rockstar educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson, attempted to quantify by just how much we actually sucked at divergent thinking.

The study showed:

  • 98% of 3-5 year olds display genius levels of divergent thinking.
  • When the same kids were tested at 8-10 years, 32% displayed the same level.
  • Only 10% displayed genius level by age 14-15.
  • And just 2% of the same test subjects had genius level divergent thinking by adulthood.

Watch this lovely animation of Sir Ken’s speech:

Since the sixties it has been one of the core tenets of occult counterculture that we are conditioned by dominant narratives and it is in some sense our goal to undo this programming.

Noble as this idea is, things aren’t quite as simple as a journey from

  • Point (A) social robot, to
  • Point (B) ontological and personal freedom.

You see, your traitorous, backstabbing, jerk of a brain has a frustrating capacity to eventually reset back to dominant modes of pattern recognition. (There’s an evolutionary advantage in here. Liking the same stuff as the monkeys around you means the right objects will make you hungry and the right objects will make you horny. This prevents you bringing a platter of bathroom plugs to a potluck orgy and then hitting on the wallpaper.)

What this all means is that the nurturing of your divergent skills is a lifelong project. So here are a few suggestions.

1. Don’t ignore your ‘wrong’ ideas

Never under-emphasise ideas or solutions you consider ‘wrong’. Own them. Two reasons for this:

  • Being wrong a lot is the only way to get to the right solution

We’ve covered the 100 Bad Ideas  approach here before.

  • Ignore the unpalatable and you’ll head off in an unhelpful direction

If you de-emphasise some of your earlier beliefs and attitudes rather than honestly examining them you may find they’re still influencing your goals. This piece on the Left’s uncomfortable belief in eugenics makes the case that it is still influencing our ‘medicalisation’ of the poor. Definitely worth a read.

2. Learn how to learn

A recent Harvard study shows that when people have an expectation of future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. In this way, the internet has become “a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves”.

Holding knowledge is no longer as valuable as evaluating knowledge. (Sidebar: Somebody build a magical order based on current educational best practice. What are they going to do when they don’t have to make initiates memorise colour correspondences?)

3. Solve the right problem

Two pieces of news from this week:

Prediction is bullshit.

In the first case attempting to forecast based on all the wrong data.

In the second case the dominant physical model of the universe is now so rickety that not only is most of the mass missing but the solution is the possibility of yet another particle except this one is zipping in and out of our dimension.

(BTW Rune Soup prediction: most of the missing mass of the universe is in fact in another dimension. The difference between a scientific view of reality and a magical one will soon be semantic.)

Both are examples of looking for the wrong solution. In the first case it’s a refusal to believe that austerity measures have failed. In the second, it’s trying to make a worldview work rather than building one around the existing evidence. (Which we aren’t fans of.)

Here’s what you should do instead:

When you are solving a difficult problem re-ask the problem so that your solution helps you learn faster. Find a faster way to fail, recover, and try again. If the problem you are trying to solve involves creating a magnum opus, you are solving the wrong problem.

If you only read one link from this post make it that one.

4. Use pharmaka

Pharmaka, defined by Owen Davies as “the spells, drugs and poisons employed by sorcerers and witches [in Ancient Greece].”

  • Caffeine, like nicotine, encourages synaptic connections.

Coffee, as previously covered here, is the cornerstone intoxicant of the modern age. You can watch the video tour of the history of London’s coffee houses here.

In terms of its use for divergent thinking, only drink small amounts on a daily basis so your brain doesn’t build up a tolerance for when you need to blast it into solving a two pipe problem.

(Also find a brand of truck driver pills that doesn’t get you really high because they behave in the brain in a similar way to Ritalin. Use only in emergencies like having to do some crazy math for the first time in your life or otherwise be fired and leave the country. Yes, I really did.)

  • Drink a small amount of vodka

It turns out that a small amount of vodka leads to a boost in creativity among men. (Sorry ladies, especially as the men in these experiments appear to have been drinking scientific cosmos. I suggest you gather up some girlfriends and perform your own experiment. Seems only fair.)

Also, it’s worth mentioning that -assuming you aren’t an addict- nothing alters your body chemistry on a daily basis more than the food you ingest.

5. Zig where others zag

It turns out that being uncommercial is really paying off for what is unarguably the best magazine in the world:

Martin Walker, head of magazine consulting firm Walker Communications, attributes The Economist’s success to its contrarian approach. While other newsweeklies are delivering more graphics and shorter articles and rushing into video production, The Economist is increasing the number of long-form stories it carries and has no ambition to produce video.

In management speak, zigging where others zag is termed ‘Blue Ocean Strategy‘. So called because it emphasises leaving the ‘red office’ of bloodied water and fierce competition to find the ‘blue ocean’ where no one else is swimming. (A shark-based management strategy? Yes, I’m a fan.)

Do you know what happens if you don’t mind being repeatedly wrong and you make a concerted decision to always zig when others zag? Eventually you will be right. You will make the competition irrelevant.

So always think zag and you’re half way to genius level divergent thinking right there.

6. Always be curious

It turns out that sick fruit flies medicate with alcohol. Isn’t that neat? Something else we have in common!

Being curious -as far as improving your divergent thinking goes- isn’t just about acquiring more knowledge in topics that interest you. In fact it means the exact opposite.

One of my favourite examples of this is a woman called Maria Popova. While working in an ad agency she realised that most ad creative is inspired by other ad creative… either whatever won at Cannes or which viral video was getting the most views. That’s what the creative teams were all referencing.

It occurred to her that if their only source of inspiration was other advertisements then her work can only ever reflect the advertising world. Ads will continue to look like ads and they will be less and less effective.

So she decided to gather together a regular stream of inspirational material -poems, snippets of old German films, whatever- basically anything but ad creative. She started sending these around. She started to get a following. And thus was born Brain Pickings. Maria, incidentally, is one of the best people to follow on twitter if you’re looking for regular inspiration. So you should.

Growing your curiosity about the entire cosmos -not just your little corner of it- is not just the best way to build up your divergent thinking capacity. Curiosity brings joy.

Is it not precisely what the universe was built for? (Hat tip to Cat for the link.)



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