Part 1: Finding your inspiration
This article is the first part of a four-part series on Creating a Roadmap for your Product Management Career in my publication Gangsta Vision here on Medium.
For a limited time, get your copy of Gangsta Vision for $0.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store.
How children find their inspiration
“I want to play a game where both of us kick a football on a course inside the house, and whoever finishes first wins.”
My five-year-old daughter said this as she returned from spending a few hours working outside. It amazed me how she still had the energy to play a game.
“Okay, what are the rules?” I asked as I finished cleaning up the kitchen after wrapping up food preparation for the week.
“Hmm, let’s see. You can’t step on the lines on the tile floor, the carpet in the living room is lava, the balls can’t hit the walls, and if you touch any of the toys scattered all over the house, Bowser will find you.”, said my daughter without much hesitation.
It had me wondering. What is unique about children that enables them to wield the creativity to invent a game at a moment’s notice?
The most apparent answer cited in several articles on this topic is the concept of divergent thinking.
Characterized by spontaneous, free-flowing thought, divergent thinking — often referred to as lateral thinking — is the process through which one creates multiple, unique ideas or solutions to a problem.
Boosting Divergent Thinking
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health performed an Alternate Uses Task (AUT) study to explore how age can play a role in divergent thinking. As the name suggests, the participant must wield creativity to find alternate solutions to a problem.
The hypothesis is that the performance of the AUT was related to the induction of episodic memory.
Feeling a bit lost?
It’s completely natural, or even expected if you take it from me, to start feeling lost after you read the study’s abstract. But bear with me here as this next part is crucial.
Episodic memory is the past experiences you retained in your long-term memory, such as what you did on your 21st birthday. So, naturally, the older you are, the more episodic memory you have.
Episodic memory can hurt AUT performance. However, it can also boost it. What does that mean?
Here’s an example. Over a decade ago, I purchased my first Android phone, the Google Nexus One. It had a nifty feature called Google Voice Search. It didn’t work very well, but when it did work, it was magic. I would use it to tell me the time, set a timer, or find directions. Over the last ten years, Google has improved this product and rebranded it as Google Assistant bundled in with their photo displays and speakers.
So I mostly use it to ask the time, set a timer, or give directions. Unfortunately, despite the product managers at Google consistently improving the software, I continued to limit its capability through my memory. This is an example of how episodic memory can hurt divergent thinking when using this product.
But as the authors of the research paper argue, you can induce episodic memory to improve performance. Advertisements can do that. Through radio, web, and television commercials, the folks at Google taught me to do new things, such as answering complex questions and telling jokes.
So I tried that, and it expanded my ability to use this product to solve new tasks. However, when it failed, I remembered it.
And in a way, my divergent thinking plateaued. I increased the scope of tasks, but it did not grow beyond that.
And I forgot about it until several years later when my daughter was old enough to form sentences and ask questions. Now she’s talking to Google Assistant. She has no constraints. She asks it all sorts of things.
I would chuckle and tell her, “The Google Assistant can’t answer that.”
Until it did.
A few weeks ago, as she was attacking the machine with the rigor of a seasoned QA tester, she uncovered a compelling feature — Live translate.
And it wasn’t that difficult to trigger. My daughter said, “Okay, Google, talk to me in language.” That was all she had to do to speak to it in English and have the AI echo back in a foreign language.
I am sure you can think of examples where a child took your phone or tablet to do something with it you didn’t know was possible. Or how was a child able to convert a box of packaging into an imaginary world of limitless possibilities?
I believe that children exhibit this sort of brute force behavior isn’t a product of boredom but rather an innate curiosity to grow their knowledge of this world.
The courage that children have to ignore their episodic memory and think of each new interaction as a fresh opportunity to learn and grow is beautiful.
Where do you get your best ideas?
We have this innate curiosity built into ourselves. We had it when we were children; it didn’t just disappear now, did it?
Children spend hours of each day playing, exploring, and growing. They have uninterrupted time and lots of it. They live in an environment of creativity as they spend more of their tie with like-minded folks — their teachers and friends.
As adults, we need to create the time and environment to find our inspiration proactively. A Google search for “finding your inspiration” results in yoga retreats, multi-day backpacking trips, and attending industry conferences.
We can schedule these events about five to ten times a year if we’re lucky. This is great, but what if we face challenges right now? The need for inspiration and divergent thinking is daily!
I challenge that inspiration needs to fit into your life. It cannot purely be on a predetermined schedule. But, if it is, your growth and innovation will follow that predetermined schedule.
I find my inspiration when doing the dishes, loading the laundry, ironing and folding clothes, or walking my dog.
During the Plato Circle I hosted in March 2022, I posed this question to the dozen engineering leaders who attended. Some find their inspiration when participating in independent sports, such as running, long-distance cycling, or swimming. Others found it in the shower, reading a book, or during quiet time.
The swimming one resonated with me. When you are in the pool, I have found myself giving in to the rhythm and taking my focus off the breathing and the movement. The experience is beautiful as you find clarity and peace. I have seen my challenges surface, and I can analyze and look at problems differently with this clarity.
Whether swimming, dog walking, or folding clothes, you can nourish the body, mind, and soul and create the conditions to activate your divergent thinking through this practice.
I am confident you can find your environment as well.
Finding your inspiration at work
Think about the last time you were able to create this type of inspiration at work. If you can’t recall it, this might indicate that your work environment might not be conducive to creativity.
And you’re not alone. According to research from UC Irvine and Humboldt, it turns out that workers struggle with a lack of uninterrupted time. Workers compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort.
Additionally, research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time — an average of 41% — on activities that others could handle competently.
So there you have it, the double whammy for leaders and middle managers. The inability for us to delegate our responsibilities compounds the preexisting challenge of finding blocks of focus time to activate divergent thinking.
No wonder we find ourselves stuck in the grind and finding all our time vanishing to “Keep the Lights On” (KTLO).
We don’t have the time to think.
So that’s the next step. In Part 2 of this four-part series, we will explore some tactics you can use to create time and then maximize it through several techniques that I call force multipliers.
In my book Gangsta Vision: Recipes to break into product management leadership, I address how episodic memory such as your cultural upbringing, preexisting biases, and other self-inflicted constraints can stop you from unleashing your true potential. Through real stories, tools, and the Gangsta Vision philosophy, I will help you find a way to break through your barriers and into senior leadership. The book will be available for purchase in May 2022. To learn more, visit www.gangstavision.com.
About the author:
Dilip Ramachandran is an entrepreneur who builds teams and ships software products in marketing and financial technology. He has many years of experience working with successful enterprises like Walmart, Experian, Marqeta, and Bond. As a pioneer of the “Chief Product Therapist” concept, he has assisted organizations in realizing world-class developer platforms and finding their product-market fit. Dilip is CEO of Nimi, an organization that advises high-growth FinTech startups and matches them with experts in Sri Lanka.
His book Gangsta Vision was inspired by his own experience and the challenges he faced when trying to break into senior leadership.
Dilip is an electrical engineering graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. He and his partner Alla, daughter Ariadna, and furry son (papillon-sheltie rescue) Wiley reside in Oakland, California.