The nature of my work is such that I spend a good deal of time on the road. Not just traveling, say to spend a few days at a conference or in meetings, but actually on the road, driving from here to there to investigate an accident scene or inspect a home damaged by fire or interview a witness. And because of the area in which I work (a sparsely populated region in a sparsely populated state) that can sometimes mean I spend hours in transit for work that might take 15 minutes.
A couple of weeks ago, I drove three hours, had a meeting with an attorney that lasted 30 minutes, then got back in the car and drove home. The idea of losing six hours of productivity during an extremely busy season in order to drive to that town where thousands flock every summer to prove to themselves that yes, Virginia, there is such a place as the Corn Palace, troubled me. Then someone suggested that I daydream along the way about a writing project I’m working on. I don’t normally favor daydreaming–there are so many other things I could be doing with my time. But as a captive behind the wheel, what else could I do? So I turned off BBC News on the radio and set about to daydreaming.
As my mind wandered the open prairie rolling by for mile after endless mile, a fanciful story unfolded that I am still working to get down on paper, a story that went off in directions that I not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t believed possible. It surprised me that my thoughts, most often concrete and logical, had gone the direction they had.
In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger makes the case for the creative work that can be done by the unconscious mind:
A growing body of research describes what happens when we allow the unconscious mind to work on a problem. Writing recently on the site Big Think, Same McNerney pulled together a number of recent studies showing that sleeping can help people to perform better at solving difficult problems requiring a creative solution. (McNerney quoted an old John Steinbeck line: “A difficult problem at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”)
Sleeping and daydreaming allow the brain to short-circuit itself, in effect, and help us reach creative solutions we might never have considered otherwise. Berger explains how this works.
Similar research exists on daydreaming and its value in producing original, creative ideas. And everyone knows about the cliched (but only because it’s true) idea-in-the-shower moment. The same neurological forces seem to be at work in all of these instances. The sleeping or relaxed brain cuts off distractions and turns inward, as the right hemisphere becomes more active leading to periods of greater connectivity.
Ever wonder why we recommend Artist Dates to fuel your creativity? According to Berger, walking, long drives (to the Corn Palace, if need be), even doodling or going to visit a museum can create enough of a distraction for the brain.
The point about connective inquiry–and the What If stage in general–is that when you take on a challenging question, if you spend time with that question, your mind will keep working on it.
So what if you tried this? What if you took a new what if question with you on a long drive or a walk in the park, or even to a local museum? What if you let your mind wander around off its leash? Or what if you just went to sleep?
We’re reading Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas together this month and invite you to read along. We invite you to share your thoughts, observations, and better yet, your questions in the comment box. Here are some questions to get you started:
What if we installed voice recorders in our showers to document the brilliant ideas we get when we have soap in our eyes?
What if we quit work to go take a nap?
Why isn’t my office in a museum?
How are you best able to disconnect your mind?
If you saw our A More Beautiful Question book club announcement post, you know that the author offered to stop by and answer questions you might have, so feel free to drop a question for Warren Berger in the comments, and we’ll ping him on Twitter to let him know we’re here, and invite him into the conversation.
Planned reading schedule for A More Beautiful Question:
March 11: Chapter 1 • The Power of Inquiry and Chapter 2 • Why We Stop Questioning
March 18: Chapter 3 • The Why, What If, and How of Innovative Questioning
March 25: Chapter 4 • Questioning in Business
April 1: Chapter 5 • Questioning for Life