'Uncreative people' can use this simple tip to easily brainstorm new ideas, Adam Grant and Brené Brown say
There's an easy way to think of new ideas, even when you're feeling totally uncreative.
Just ask organizational psychologist Adam Grant and leadership researcher Brené Brown. Both are bestselling authors who regularly generate fresh, conversation-starting ideas, despite formerly identifying as "uncreative" people.
The pair discussed their strategies on Tuesday's episode of the "A Bit of Optimism" podcast, hosted by fellow bestselling author Simon Sinek.
"I grew up thinking I was completely uncreative," Grant said. "What I was good at was figuring out what was going to be on the test, and then getting an 'A.'"
Brown said she felt similarly, dating back to her family's move to the Houston suburbs during her childhood. There, she was pressured into conformity above creativity, she said.
"All of a sudden, it was 'conform, conform, conform,' which aligns with the research we see on shame and creativity in kids happening ... in middle school. High pressure, peer-conforming ages," she said.
For middle school girls especially, the so-called "confidence drop" can be precipitous: Research shows girls' confidence levels drop by 30 percent between the ages of 8 and 14.
Brown and Grant got out of their respective creativity ruts by using the same tactic, they said: looking for patterns around them.
Treating your brain as a 'quilt'
For Grant, the shift came in college, when his schoolwork became "less about regurgitating existing knowledge and more about coming up with a novel observation, or making an interesting argument."
On the podcast, Grant said he thinks of his brain as a quilt: "Everything I read, and every question I get asked, is like a little square, but it's lonely. It's looking for other squares."
His key to unlocking new ideas is simple — start putting the squares together. For example, years ago, Grant noticed that multiple people were complaining to him about their interactions with other people, he said.
Specifically, the complainers had trouble figuring out when their interactions should be transactional and when they should simply help the people around them.
It wasn't necessarily earth-shattering, but Grant was intrigued enough to dig in more, finding multiple academic papers on the topic. Each used different language, but when combined, Grant could identify a common theme, he said: Some people are givers, takers or even traders in their relationships.
"All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off. I was like, 'Wait, this is a worldview,'" Grant said. "It was already out there. Nobody had put it together."
The result was Grant's bestselling 2013 book, "Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, which was later named one of Oprah Winfrey's "riveting reads" and one of The Washington Post's "books every business leader should read."
Connecting the dots
Brown, who says she's been a "pattern hunter" since childhood, takes a similar approach.
Her bestselling book, "Daring Greatly," gets its name from a line in a 1910 Theodore Roosevelt speech about moments of courage. The speech wouldn't strike everyone as a treatise on vulnerability, but Brown saw a link between Roosevelt's worlds and her academic studies, which focused on the connections between vulnerability and successful leadership.
It was a small string that tied her modern research to a larger, historical thread — but a resonant one.
The key: Always staying open-minded when absorbing new information, Grant and Brown both said.
"One of the reasons I think that I can make connections between what's seemingly unconnectable is the gigantic size of my reference set," Brown added, citing far-flung obsessions from British mystery shows to people who attend My Little Pony conferences.
Of course, too much information can lead to overload — so you'll need to be discerning with it, applying that knowledge specifically to your topics of interest.
"You want to filter the information in your environment through a goal that you're trying to achieve, or through a problem you're trying to solve," Grant said.
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