An Ancient Skill for Thriving in the Modern Innovation Economy
At first glance, an ancient practice might not seem like the modern path to disruptive innovation. But hear me out.
In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that creativity was the soul of economic development. For decades, his “innovation economics” theory was treated as an interesting, not-entirely-convincing concept. In the last decade, however, and especially since the 2008 economic crisis, Schumpeter’s ideas are taking the main stage. In the post-Great-Recession America, creativity is reshaping the business landscape. Apple and Google exemplify this, of course, as do other successful upstarts, like Zipcar and Etsy, and micro-trends, like jalapeño brownie food trucks and DIY cardboard bicycles. As Professor David Ahlstrom writes, the goal of modern business must be “to develop new and innovative goods and services that generate economic growth while delivering benefits to society.” Professor Michael Porter agrees: Today, “innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity.”
Creativity, that process that leads to innovation, is changing everything, including the way that people and organizations flourish. Creativity is a foundational asset of the Gen Y mindset (think TEDTalks, co-working in open green spaces and company-sponsored juggling classes). And creativity isn’t just a core value for design shops or social media giants. In a 2010 IBM study, CEOs ranked “creativity” as the most crucial leadership quality for the enterprise of the future.
So, how do we become more creative? One way is to turn to the ancient principle of mindfulness, helping us tap into our innate capacity to imagine, discover new ideas and innovate.
Okay, so what is mindfulness? Put simply, it’s a way of engaging with the present. And yes, this can be very effectively practiced via yoga (which includes meditation and the physical poses). However, you don’t have to sit in silent meditation or chant “om” to grow more mindful.
All you have to do is pay attention. It’s that simple and that difficult. So before you repurpose your yoga mat into a coffee koozie, know that the art of paying attention, in a world of grumpy cat memes, Instagram photo filters, Netflix instant episodes and Twitter feeds… well, trust me, it takes practice.
We can be mindful without getting into meditation. That’s a fact. And here is more good news: mindfulness, like creativity, is a learned skill, not an inherent trait (kindness works the same way). In learning to be mindful, we can enhance our awareness of ourselves, others, and the vast world of ideas. As Eden Phillpotts wrote, “The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
If we look closely, we realize that mindfulness is at the core of all creative activity. As I discussed in a recent seminar with college students, mindfulness helps us to drop our old stories about ourselves, so that we can create new ones. When we embrace the present, the stress of our past and our future fades, and we can expand the boundaries of our imagination. Once we strip away the calcified assumptions about ourselves and our world, we can see everything from a fresh perspective. It’s here, as Thoreau wrote, that we discover new ideas “like falling meteors,” suddenly appearing before us “with a flash and an explosion.”
In a sense, this technique is as old as time. It was not an accident that Newton formulated his theory of gravity while relaxing under an apple tree. And, speaking of Apples, it was not a coincidence that Steve Jobs’ casual interest in calligraphy stimulated his world-changing technological innovations with a typographic design focus. He knew that “[y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Trust. Connecting the dots. These two concepts reflect the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. It’s difficult to be creative when we fear uncertainty. Mindfulness helps us become more comfortable with the unknown, and gives us the space to observe our thoughts and the world around us, opening the door for us to make the daring connections that are at the heart of creative thinking.
Slowing down, taking a step back, and even napping and mind-wandering, interspersed with diligent focus, are all part of creative mindfulness. Great companies recognize this, and encourage employees to take time during work to let their minds wander and to pursue and share personal passions. Consider 3M and Google’s “Innovation Time Off” programs (that you can thank for such inventions as Gmail and Post-It Notes). Even Don Draper acknowledged this. In advising a colleague on how to generate creative ideas, he said: “Just think about it deeply, then forget it… then an idea will jump up in your face.”
As Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes: “Mindless habitual behavior is the enemy of innovation.” If we can break away from unproductive habits and look at challenges in a new way, we can cultivate more creative ideas.
The bonus of becoming more mindful is that we can also grow happier, healthier and less judgmental of ourselves, which will motivate us to become even more bold and innovative. Mindfulness cultivates empathy for yourself and your customers, which is the origin of creative business strategies and crucial for leadership, design, social good, and all of the relationships in your life.
So, to lead a more creative life and plug in to what matters to you, unplug. To connect the dots, the essence of creativity, disconnect for a while. Take a walk. Find a bit of solitude or brainstorm with a creative friend. Jot down your ideas or schedule daydream time in your Google calendar (which might have been daydreamed into being itself).
Just like Kickstarter reframed how projects find support and the Rolling Stones revamped the blues, remix your own mindfulness tape. Disrupt your own process. In doing so, you just might disrupt the market with your innovative idea.
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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on September 23, 2014.