A lesson in ethical deceit
Many years ago, I had the pleasure of working summers for a big roofing company here in Portland. It was my first “real” job, and I used the money to help pay for school.
One day, under the hot sun, lamenting how slow we were moving, I started to think of different ways we could work that would speed us up and get us out of the sun faster. I spent the day thinking it through and, when we came to work the next morning, I caught my foreman at break time and pitched him my idea.
Mitch, I noticed we normally have the whole crew laying lead pans in the morning before we start doing roofing. When we finish, we have to get all the roofing materials ready. That only takes two people, and the rest of us have to wait around until it’s done.
I was thinking: What if we put just two people on the lead pans in the morning—that’s enough to stay ahead of the crew—while the rest of the team gets the roofing materials ready and starts laying roofing behind us. Then we could finish the job before it gets hot and miserable.
I was totally deflated. I’d really thought this through and wanted to contribute something to my crew. I was sure Mitch was going to love it, and the whole crew would carry me off the job on their shoulders (because we’d be done before it got too hot for that).
Throughout the years, I had similar experiences at different jobs. Still, today, I face the same challenge with teams I work with from time to time. I’ll pitch a creative idea I think is going to change everything, only to be met with a ho-hum reply:
If you want to advance in your career, one of the most important things you need to do is make sure your creative ideas are accepted by the people who will actually make them a success. Without buy-in from your boss and others who can actually bring your ideas to life, they’ll either go nowhere, or they’ll take off and crash spectacularly, leaving you with less credibility for new creative ideas going forward.
But driving home the other day listening to Shankar Vedantam—my favorite NPR correspondent—I stumbled onto a few studies that explain the intricate psychology of creating truly creative ideas and getting others to buy into them.
There’s a difference between actually being creative and getting people to accept your ideas. And while you and I think of ourselves as creative already, there are actually a few scientifically proven tactics you can use toincrease your creativity, and they all have to do with… distance.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to solve your friends’ problems, but not your own? Someone laments their life over a beer one night, and the first thing you think is, “Oh, that one’s easy!” Of course, then, your mind drifts off to your own problems and you go to bed that night thinking, “Damn, my problems are so hard!”
The reason your friends’ problems are easy to solve is because of what’s known as temporal distance. You’re not intimately familiar with every last detail of their lives or how your easy solutions will cause a domino effect, touching every different part of them.
To you, their problems are further away, so you’re able to look at them from a distance and come up with creative solutions; nevermind the details.
But when you look at your own problems, your attention is highly focused on the details, and details are what kill any good, creative idea. You might come up with something truly clever, but you hesitate to start it because you can see how it might cause problems in other parts of your life. You start weighing all the little pros and cons and end up spiraling down until it all seems like too much work. Then, you go back to doing what you’ve always done.
This concept was recently studied by a team of researchers at Indiana University. They found when people thought about problems that were temporally distant—not theirs, hypothetical, wouldn’t happen for a long time, etc.—they came up with consistently more varied and creative solutions.
The same team of researchers found that spatial distance produced the same results. They did another study asking subjects to solve several different problems. One group was told the problems were developed by other researchers thousands of miles away. Another group was told the problems were developed right around the corner.
So, if you want to be more creative in your everyday life, the simple tactic of detaching yourself from the problem you’re trying to solve will help you come up with new and interesting ideas. And taking yourself on a little vacation can also do wonders for creativity.
Alright. You’ve taken your creativity to the extreme, and now you want to make these ideas of yours come to life. Maybe you’ve got some that will improve your work and career. It’s time to get other people—particularly your boss—on board so you’ll have the support to see them through and be successful.
Think about who your boss is, how she thinks, and why she has the job she does. If she’s like many managers, she’s gotten where she is because she’s intimately familiar with the work you do. She knows it inside and out, and she has a record of success keeping your business on track—probably by doing things the same way they’ve always been done.
Remember that pesky problem with details from above? They keep you from seeing new solutions to your problems. This same problem is afflicting your boss. She knows every detail of your work, so it’s hard for her to accept new, creative ideas.
First, rather than pitching a new idea in a way that makes it feel like it would happen now, try framing it as more of a hypothetical. Paint your idea as a picture of what things could be like, maybe some time in the future. Maybe something like:
This will take the pressure off your boss to feel like she has to act on it now, and that will allow her to see the possibilities and consider them and not immediately put up red flags. You’re slowly warming her up.
Next, try to work your pitch in a way that draws on ideas that come from far away. Find examples of similar ideas being done in other cultures or places that are far away. This will play on the physical distance aspect of creativity. We don’t really know what causes it yet, but we’re more open to ideas that come from far away. Try something like this:
You might even consider the method you use to pitch your idea. Don’t bring it up in person at first. Instead, send an email. Maybe even send it on the weekend or another time that would catch her thinking about things other than work. A phone call could do the same.
Your mind is racing right now. You’re inspired to put this tactic to work, but you’re not quite sure where or how to use it just yet. You’re telling yourself, “This is good. I’ll come back to it another time when I feel more ready.”
- Get out a piece of paper and a pen.
- Write down one idea you’re passionate about and would like to get your boss (or someone else equally important) on board with. Don’t make this an epic, existential question. Just pick something for now.
- Now, write down how you can pitch this idea to this person in a way that will create lots of temporal and even physical distance. How can you make them think about the possibilities and not potential problems?
- Leave a comment telling us all how you’ll bring this idea up with this person by the end of the day.
Big things only happen if you get started on them now in a small way. If you want to live adventurously, add more creativity to your life, and get others to share in the possibilities your creativity brings, follow the steps above. Then, watch how your ideas take off in new and unexpected ways.
Additional sources for this article:
An Easy Way to Increase Creativity
Lessons from a Faraway land: The effect of spatial distance on creative cognition