How often are we encouraged to be playful at work? For most, the answer is a definitive NEVER! Yet, by invoking the power of play at the right time you put your brain into its best state for having those big, incredible, and creative ideas.
Think about this: where are you and what are you doing most often when you come up with your best ideas? The most common response to that question is “in the shower,” followed by an assortment of activities that include running, walking the dog, jogging, commuting, driving, falling asleep, and waking up. Indeed, out of the thousands of people I have trained to Think Different (innovate) around the globe in both my former role as Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney and in my new role as Founder of iD8, no one has ever offered up the following response: “At Work!” I would guess that any person in a position of responsibility for a company’s innovation would find this response pretty concerning.
The following example brings the underlying principles to light. Picture in your mind’s eye the last real argument you were in… You’re angry, viscerally defending your point of view, voice raised. The argument concludes and you storm out, furious. Less than 10 minutes later, as you begin to relax and are occupied with an unrelated task, what undoubtedly happens every single time? It comes to you. That “killer one liner” you’d wished you thought of DURING the argument. If only it had better timing–it was the perfect comeback that would have completely destroyed your opponent’s point of view.
Why does this happen, nearly every single time?
Being in an argument is similar to being in the office, and the “killer one liners” are not accessible in either situation. In the argument example, your brain was so busy defending your point of view that you couldn’t think of and seamlessly deliver that perfect response. In the office, you are likely busy reading emails, preparing presentations, attending meetings, scheduling, and having an internal monologue about how “there’s no time to think.”. When you don’t have time to think, of course it’s hard to have that big idea.
For most of any given day we only use our conscious brain, representing only a surprising 13% of the brain’s capacity. The other 87%, our subconscious brain goes unused because when we are stressed and hear ourselves say “I don’t have time to think,” the door between our conscious and subconscious brain closes completely. When this door is closed, access to all of that experiential and creative stimulus in the subconscious brain is denied, therefore, no big ideas. Every meal you’ve ever eaten, place you’ve ever visited, person you’ve ever met, book you’ve read, movie you’ve seen–they’re all back there in your subconscious brain waiting to make unrelated connections back to the challenge at hand and to support the creation of that big innovation.
Playfulness is the key to get out of Busy Beta (the highly efficient brain state of mental “doing”), and into Amazing Alpha (the brain state where the door between our conscious and subconscious brain is slightly open in which we make rational decisions and also have access to all of our subconscious stimuli). This is the very reason why I run Energizers at the beginning of every ideation session I am leading, and after each break. As the group’s conductor, I listen for laughter; the moment I hear Playfulness, I know that the participants have opened the gateway, and now have access to their biggest and most creative ideas.
For those of you who say falling asleep or waking up is when you have your best ideas, this is the brain state I call “Thoughtful Theta.” It’s the stage just as you are nodding off but not yet in a deep sleep, or you are coming out of a deep sleep back into some level of consciousness.
Thomas Edison was a Thoughtful Theta, and If you’ve ever heard of the expression “When the Penny Drops” (that ‘Eureka’ moment when that big idea just drops right in there), it comes from an experiment conducted by Thomas Edison. To open the door between his conscious and subconscious brain just a little deeper, Edison would sit in his armchair and place a penny between his knees and a small tin tray on the floor below. As he nodded off to sleep, his muscles would relax and the penny would drop, hitting the tin tray and making enough noise to wake him up. He would immediately write down whatever he was thinking, which led to his having more invention patents in the U.S. than any other inventor in the 20th century.
Another Thoughtful Theta was Salvador Dalí, who would purposely fall asleep while resting quite deliberately against his easel. As he fell asleep, he would fall over thus waking himself up, at which time he would immediately begin to sketch whatever he’d begun dreaming, resulting in a style of painting that made him one of the most creative artists of his generation.
All Thoughtful Thetas should keep a notepad near their bed, so that those incredible and often fleeting ideas can be captured on paper before they disappear forever.
As Mary Poppins said: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.”. Innovation is “thinking different,” which of course you simply cannot do if you’re always thinking the same way. If you create space and opportunity to energize and to allow those creative juices to flow more freely in the Amazing Alpha state, you will have results. You must also inject an element of Playfulness into every ideation session to help people get into a headspace where they are capable of having their big ideas.