The Mentorist

Color Outside the Lines: Basic Training for Creative Thinking


Maybe it’s because I’m left-handed.

For whatever reason, I’m fascinated by the growing research focused on how people in ‘analytical’ or ‘logic-based’ professions can access the so-called ‘right-hand’ side of the brain.

Being called ‘right-brained’ has become code for being regarded as ‘creative’ — and, indeed, research has shown that certain regions of the brain’s right hemisphere are activated when creative thought is going on.  What I find exciting is that people — no matter how ‘left-brained’ they may feel — can train themselves to tap into these brain regions and develop their creativity.  Just like any other muscle.

So why is this important to someone who’s not interested in becoming an artist?  Because creativity isn’t limited to artistic ability.  Nor is it limited to inventing something that’s ‘Capital-N-New.’

Rather, creativity often is more like playing around with a set of Legos:  It involves finding a new pattern or ‘whole’ in the course of uncovering, choosing, reshuffling and combining already existing facts and ideas.

Seen from that perspective, who doesn’t need to develop his creativity?

In-house lawyers are facing seemingly impossible mandates to do more with (drastically) less.  Law and other professional services firms are scrambling to attract new business.  And everyone is striving to be different — that is, in some important way, better — than the other guys.  To excel at any of this takes big doses of creativity.

Just try searching ‘creativity’ on Harvard Business Review’s website:  1,032 hits, as of this morning.  Add ‘innovation’ to the search, and that number increases to 5,935.  Clearly, these concepts and business are ‘fused at the hip.’

So, how can someone become a more creative thinker?  Entire libraries exist on the subject.  However, I like the idea of starting off with three exercises suggested by Shelley Carson, a Harvard psychology professor who teaches the award-winning course “Creativity:  Madmen, Geniuses and Harvard Students”:

[NOTE: Before maligning the quality of today’s Harvard undergraduate education, realize that the exercise titles are mine.]

  1. The Martha Stewart

    Pick an everyday object.  Now, spend one minute listing — as fast as you can — all possible uses you can think of for it.  Don’t judge your answers.  Not practical?  So what?  Silly?  So much the better.

    I first did this exercise during a ‘Creativity’ seminar taught by Carson.  The object du jour was an empty soup can.  After our one minute was up, Carson asked members of the audience to volunteer their ideas.  Yes, the ‘usual suspects’ came out:  planter, rolling pin, cookie cutter, tin can & string telephone…. But, then, so did some ingenious ones, such as camera obscura.

    Best of all was the fellow who responded ‘friend.’ (Perhaps he will name it ‘Wilson’….)

  2. The Analyst’s Couch

    Pick the name of any common object.  Now, spend one minute free-associating (again, as fast as you can), noting whatever follow-on words come to mind.

    Roam far and wide.  Don’t edit.  The most ‘creative’ responses will consider multiple meanings that the word can have and then follow each one as it branches into more and more offshoots.

    For instance, let’s say the word you select is ‘leaf.’  An ‘uncreative’ set of associations will stay narrow and conventional:  First, moving to ‘tree,’ then to ‘foliage,’ then on to ‘green,’ then, perhaps, to ‘grass’…. You get the idea.

    By contrast, a ‘creative’ set of associations might, upon hearing ‘leaf,’ not only lead to the word ‘tree,’ but also to words like ‘table’ and ‘book’ and (jumping to a homophone) ‘Ericson.’  Each of these associative words, in turn, will lead to multiple offshoots.  (‘Table’ might lead to ‘chair,’ ‘mesa’ and ‘top’; then, ‘chair’ to ‘electric,’ ‘meeting’ and ‘lift’; and on it goes….)

    If nothing else, this exercise will turn you into a grandmaster of the Saturday New York Times’ crossword puzzle.

  3. Two Degrees of Kevin Bacon

    Improve your creative thinking abilityPick the names of any two (seemingly unrelated) common objects.  Now, as fast as you can,try to ‘tie’ or relate the first object to the second, using just three word associations in-between.  Next, repeat the exercise, with only two word associations in the middle.  Finally, do it with just one.

    For example, suppose you’ve picked the words ‘fish’ and ‘money.’  When allowed three ‘linking’ words to connect the two objects, you might ‘associate’ as follows:  ‘fish’ — ‘ocean’ — ‘yacht’ — ‘wealthy’ — ‘money.’  Voila. You have reached your destination.

    Done again, this time with only two ‘linking’ words allowed: ‘fish’ –- ‘shark’ –- ‘loan’ –- money.’

    And, finally, with just one added ‘link’: ‘fish’ – ‘gold’ – ‘money.’

Feeling that burn in your brain’s right hemisphere?  Now get out there and create the new best thing since sliced bread….

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

3 thoughts on “Color Outside the Lines: Basic Training for Creative Thinking

  1. Creativity is bound to be high on any company’s list of things to look for in an employee, especially in the current climate and so it is so important to develop it in any way possible. It’s strange that people think creativity is something that can’t be learnt but like you say; it is just like any other muscle and can therefore be trained.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris.

      I have a friend whose mother teaches advanced placement math to high school seniors. She’s an innovative teacher who injects ‘creativity’ exercises into the curriculum –and, interestingly, the ‘A+’ students are the ones who find the exercises the most difficult. A sad commentary!

  2. Stellar work there everyone. I’ll keep on reading.

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