“I'm living at a peak of clarity and beauty I never knew existed. Every part of me is attuned to the work. I soak it up into my pores during the day, and at night—in the moments before I pass off into sleep—ideas explode into my head like fireworks. There is no greater joy than the burst of solution to a problem."
Like Charley in Flowers for Algernon, our best thinking occurs when our minds are relaxed. Connections cannot happen if we are in a state of anxiety; anxiety prohibits our mind from being receptive to new ideas, solutions and answers to the questions that interest us. A Relaxed mind leads to greater creativity. Chen-Bo Zhong, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School, refers to this relaxed brain as a "state of inattention". The quintessential example of this is the "Aha" shower moment.
Warren Berger, in his book, A More Beautiful Question, explains the shower moment, and also the phenomenon of sleeping on it, "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."
In relation to the power of questioning, Berger explains, "For a questioner, it's important to spend time with challenging questions instead of trying to answer them right away. By 'living with' a question, thinking about it and then stepping away from it, allowing it to marinate, you give your brain a chance to come up with the kinds of fresh insights and What If possibilities that can lead to breakthroughs".
I had many of these kinds of breakthroughs, while writing my manuscript. When I encountered a tricky plot situation, I would pose the questions on a white board and then step away, often stepping into the shower, or sometimes stepping away for a week, or longer. I remember one complication specifically when I had to figure out how one of the characters, Roland, was going to escape a stadium full of threatening Peruvian natives. Once the solution burst through, it became obvious that Ishan could end up saving Roland by shouting out the native ruler's motto in the Chechua language, "Ama Suwa, Ama Quella, Ama Llula". The natives would then be disarmed by a stranger knowing their most cherished values, as stated in their motto. Thankfully for Roland, the natives end up cancelling their decapitation ritual and release he and Ishan, so their adventures could continue. Connective inquiry is fun. It's dependable magic.
Berger describes this magic, "The point about connective inquiry—is that when you take on a challenging question, if you spend time with that question, your mind will keep working on it. This doesn't mean there aren't conscious ways to trigger What If ideas including some of the exercises to follow. But be willing to slow down, go quiet, and let the question incubate. If nothing else this provides a handy excuse when it's time to get out of bed in the morning, 'Give me another ten minutes, I need to do some more connective inquiry.'"
Berger also suggests going to museums. "It engages the imagination, yet leaves room for thinking; it offers up as inspiration the many creative connections and smart recombinations that others have produced in the past; and it exposes the visitor to so many ideas and influences that it provides abundant raw material for making new mental connections". Berger refers to the iconic designer, George Lois, "George Lois who claims some of his best ideas have come while meandering through the Metropolitan Museum, says, 'Museums are the custodians of epiphanies'."
I too have found great inspiration from museum outings, and in particular, at Chicago's Field Museum. As my daughter and I would meander the various collections, my mind would happily absorb the stimuli. On one visit, we explored a Haitian voodoo exhibit and there I found the answer to my latest manuscript question, "So what does this devilish character look like?" Oh, I see, like a mechanical voodoo doll. Perfect! Recently, we went to The Art Institute of Chicago and as we entered the Arthur Rubloff Paperweight Collection, my daughter said, "Let's pick out a paperweight that represents ourselves and then we'll show them to each other." I felt a little intimidated by this task, wondering if I could find one that spoke to me so personally. In the past, I liked this part of the museum the least, but looking at the paperweights in this novel way elevated the experience and engaged me more deeply.
As I discovered at the art museum, connective inquiry is a happy experience and happiness can also result from experimentation. Berger explains, "The word experiment may conjure up images of lab coats and microscopes. Maybe it brings back uncomfortable memories of the dissection of frogs. But experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the ways you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That's an experiment."
Berger references someone who embraces this idea, A.J. Jacobs. This is a guy who is intensely curious about how others live their lives. This curiosity leads him to experiment and try living like others. For instance, he wondered what it would be like to live according to the Bible, and so he did, for a year. He chronicled his experience in his book The Year of Living Biblically. Berger describes Jacobs' experience, "He grew a large, bushy beard, wore flowing robes, and prayed constantly. Following the Bible's message about being thankful, Jacobs expressed his thankfulness hundreds of times a day." Jacobs told Berger, "When I pressed the elevator button, I was thankful that the elevator came, and then thankful it didn't plummet to the basement and break my collarbone. You realize, doing this, that there are hundreds of things that go right every day and yet we focus on the three or four that go wrong."
Jacobs is a great reminder that we need to shake things up now and then, in order to avoid getting trapped in ruts. One way he does this is by posing the question to himself, "What would an optimistic confident person do?" This prompts him to get out of himself and maybe his first instinct can be counter-acted by channeling another type of person. This is my goal for 2018. I have a desire to live more like a Parisian. I want to experience more of a romantic and European lifestyle, so I ask myself, "What would a Parisian woman do?" I have the question written on a small whiteboard in my closet and so I glance at it on a daily basis. I also fall short of this on a daily basis, but it is an ideal that I like trying to aspire to. For instance, I recognize that a Parisian woman would never go to bed in her work-out clothes to make it easier to get on the treadmill in the morning. Oh well, maybe tomorrow. . .
Of course, there are those that concern themselves with bigger questions; questions that go beyond what a Parisian woman would wear to sleep (I'm sure it's a silk negligee versus an athletic bra). Innovators like Netflix founder, Reed Hastings. He founded Netflix because of his frustration with video rental late fees, and so he posed the question to himself, "What if a video-rental business was run like a health club?" He then developed a business model based on monthly membership and eliminated late fees. Later on, he posed the question, "Why are we only renting the films and shows? What if we made them too?" At the time, it seemed a little crazy for a rental company to produce content and yet here they are, a major producer of entertainment. Hastings curiosity led to transformative answers.
Berger in A More Beautiful Question, highlights another innovative example of attaining a big answer. A college football coach had been observing his team, who had been sweating, drinking ample amounts of water and exerting themselves and wondered, "Why aren't these guys urinating?" Despite all of the water, he noticed that they were not having to go to the bathroom after their games. He consulted a professor of renal medicine at the university who then formulated a drink to replace electrolytes. This was the start of Gatorade, which is named after the team's mascot.
These are two examples of powerful questions that come from direct observation and experience. Another, more general, question is discussed in Regina Dugan's Ted Talk, "From Mach-20 Glider to Hummingbird Drone". This question drives innovation at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The question she poses is, "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" Asking yourself this question breaks down the obstacles that we put in place in order to protect ourselves from the negative aspects of failure. This question opens up possibilities and leads to the process of taking action and learning from our attempts. It reminds me of Eleanor Roosevelt's quote, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do". These questions inspire action and help us to make decisions to move forward. Sometimes quick action is appropriate, and sometimes allowing time to mull something over is better.
Delay Can Be a Good Thing
Even patient Maggie, the well-trained Golden Retriever, will reach a point at which she can't hold the bone on her nose any longer. Frank Partnoy, the author of Wait, explores the value of delay, especially in regards to decision-making. The question that he advocates to ask is, "For how long should we delay?" This approach allows the driving factor to be the amount of time to not act.
This emphasis on inaction may seem counter to the rapid pace of today's world-at-your-fingertips electronic society, and the tendency to meet that pace of immediacy by reaching firm conclusions quickly. Partnoy explains, "That is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes." Observing and processing is like "Staying in the Question", meaning wise decisions are reached by being able to tolerate ambiguity.
Partnoy's advice for future generations is this, "If I am limited to just one word of wisdom about decision-making for children born a hundred years from now, people who will have all of our advantages and limitations as human beings but will need to navigate an unimaginably faster-paced world than the one we confront now, there is no doubt what that word should be. Wait."
In conclusion, relax your mind and wait for that burst of solution to come forward. Sit in the question and take the time to allow connections to form and for the answers to become clear—allow time for incubation.