Using Connective Thinking to Come Up with Unique Ideas

“Anyone can look for fashion in a boutique or history in a museum. The creative explorer looks for history in a hardware store and fashion in an airport.” 
Robert Wieder

To be professionally successful in the 21st century we need to rediscover our capacity for connective thinking. Connective thinking is analogical and links disparate topics, strategies, methods, and principles together to form new ideas. Mixing and matching from different fields have led to great discoveries such as the theory of evolution. Yet, most of us rarely use this way of thinking.

Our brains prefer to work by means of connections; connecting ideas and concepts to form new ones. Unfortunately, modern life has led to mechanical thinking, meaning that we are ruled by habits, automatic associations, and responses. We simply don’t need to solve complex problems on a regular basis since modern society has made our lives very predictable.

Getting stuck in fixed patterns of thought leads us to make fewer and fewer connections and as a result, we do not feed the part of our brains that would normally default into connective thinking.

Instead, our minds use patterns to simplify the decision-making process when presented with any kind of information. For example, you identify a door, find the handle, and open the door. Your brain finds an object, looks for a matching pattern and an action that matches that particular pattern. The problem is solved without any effort beyond mechanical thinking.

This is why we sometimes experience confusion when approaching a door we mistakingly believe to be automatic and find ourselves just standing in front it waiting for it to magically open. The pattern didn’t match. Since we have previous experiences with other kinds of doors as well, we eventually try a more successful approach.

The patterns are there to help us make a decision and then go on with our lives. Patterns are simply a remembered response to a particular situation. The world presents a situation and we find a response. We remember the response and the pathways that link the situation to the response are stored for future use.

Pattern recognition allows us to become stagnant in our way of thinking. Professionally most of us tend to follow a linear path leading us to specialize narrowly into our field of choice. When presented with problems or demanded to come up with new ideas, we default back to previously tried solutions and ideas. We avoid breaking out of our circle of thought.

The key to coming up with unique ideas and approaches is connective thinking.

It is a natural way of thinking for your brain and the key is cross-connection of ideas, fields, principles and methods. You probably have people in your life that seem to do this naturally, but their brains are not that different from yours. The difference is how they approach learning and knowledge.

People who have more knowledge and more experiences have a greater chance of generating new ideas because they have larger databases of information to draw from. They can make connections and intuitive leaps that escape the narrow, tunnel vision of mechanical thinking.

To become a connective thinker you need to keep expanding your knowledge base. This means that you need to constantly feed your curiosity by reading, watching, exploring, and diving into multidisciplinary pursuits.

If you develop an appetite for learning and openness, you’re more likely to be able to draw ideas from multiple disciplines.

Elon Musk, Charles Darwin, and Charlie Munger are all connective thinkers

What they have in common is that they know a lot about a wide variety of topics. They are also able to use their knowledge to come up with new ways to look at problems. They translate methods and principles across diverse areas of expertise.

Elon Musk is usually the first person that comes to mind when looking for examples of modern day connective thinkers. In Forbes Magazine Michael Simmons describes Musk as an Expert-generalist:

Expert-generalists study widely in many different fields, understand deeper principles that connect those fields, and then apply the principles to their core specialty.

Michael Simmons goes on to illustrate how connective thinking can give you tangible benefits:

If you’re in the tech industry and everyone else is just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology, you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else could. Vice-versa. If you’re in biology, but you you also understand artificial intelligence, you have an information advantage over everyone else who stays siloed.
Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field. Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both independently created the theory of evolution by natural selection. Isaac Asimov writes the following about them in his essay on Creativity:

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”
Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Charlie Munger, the lesser known business partner of Warren Buffet, is also a great example of a connective thinker. Bill Gates has said of Munger:

“He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered. From business principles to economic principles to the design of student dormitories to the design of a catamaran he has no equal”.

Charlie Munger has beyond investment banking studied fields as varied as microeconomics, psychology, law, mathematics, biology, and engineering. By using theories and methods he has learned from these fields and applying them to investing — he has found great success.

How you can become a connective thinker

In order to improve your connective thinking, it is important that you go beyond the deeper knowledge you have regarding your own field of work and build up a wide base of knowledge that can be mined later for analogies.

  1. Build yourself an information foundation by learning from different fields of thought. For example, if your main knowledge and work is in the field of marketing — learn about evolution, farming, and neuroscience. The concepts of crop rotation, natural selection, and cognitive thinking may spark ideas for how to approach marketing in a different way.
  2. Make it a habit to first look for cross-connection solutions, instead of looking for familiar patterns that lead you back to mechanical thinking. Ask yourself how an accountant, a programmer or an actor would approach the challenges your face. Maybe you need to be extra attentive to detail, implement some team work, or improvise your way forward.
  3. Keep feeding your knowledge base and dive into new fields whenever possible by reading a book, watching a lecture, discuss with a friend in a different profession or earn a second or third degree.
    The goal is to see things differently, to be able to come up with multiple options and to not be afraid to break the rules.
“Creativity, it has been said, consists largely of re-arranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know.” George Keller

Before you dig into a new and exciting field — become a better learner by taking the free course Learning More Efficiently.

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