Keys for developing an exploratory mind

Keys for developing an exploratory mind


A graduate student was recently trying to come up with an explanation for something he saw in the lab. He couldn’t. He was trying, but struggling to come up with new ideas. I said to him, “You need to stop looking under the lamp post”. The parable of the lamp post tells, loosely, of a young couple walking home after an evening out. They arrive home only to discover they had dropped their keys somewhere along the way. Troubled, they race the encroaching night, retracing their steps, and stop underneath the nearest lamp post. As one searched carefully under the light, the other asked, “why are you searching here?”, to which the first replied, “because this is where the light is shining”.

In science, as in life, we don’t always have all the information: whether its looking for your misplaced keys, solving your current problem, or discovering your next breakthrough. To come up with a new idea, or think in a new way, studies of the human brain have shown it works in at least two distinct modes, engaging different mental systems, depending on the task.

“Two different networks”, describes Barbara Oakley, professor of engineering and author of A Mind for Numbers, “are called the focused mode and the diffuse mode”. Oakley is a linguistics expert who learned multiple Slavic languages in the US Army, a late-comer Engineer, and an all-around polymath. Recounting her own experiences with diffuse- and focused-mode thinking while learning these wide-ranging topics, Oakley describes an analogy of how a thought is like the silver ball in the pinball machine of our mind. “In the focused mode, the ball bounces tightly with intense concentration on a specific problem, whereas in the diffuse mode, the ball bounces much more widely and is an approach that often involves a big-picture perspective.”  The mind actively switches between these two modes”, says Oakley, “but is not thought to carry them out at the same time.”

Consistent with this idea, research dating back to the mid-1950s established divergent and convergent thinking as two distinct mental modes. Divergent thinking is used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions, defined by psychologist J.P. Guilford, whereas convergent thinking follows linear, logical steps to arrive at a single solution. As the terms imply, divergent thinking gathers new ideas outwardly, while convergent prunes these ideas inwardly to provide information organization and structure.

Original thinking also requires two different modes, describes Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, Wharton Professor, and New York Times best-selling author. In Originals, Grant spans business, politics, sports, and entertainment, to explore the minds of original thinkers. His central thesis juxtaposes generative versus evaluative thinking. He tells countless examples of how a history of thinkers successfully generated, but failed to evaluate next big-ideas, or vice versa. He goes on to tell how natural human inclination jumps from the generative state to the evaluative state, essentially cutting off the creative process.

Remarkably, these discrete scientific fields — the methods of learning, the neuroscience of creativity and decision making, and the psychology of original thinking  — have all converged on this same idea. When you don’t have all the information or are seeking new ideas, the exploratory mind operates differently than the decision-making mind. The exploratory mind needs purpose. Needs time. So what are the keys, then, to stop looking under the lamp post for proverbial keys?

1. Realize the human brain works in different modes, engaging different mental systems, depending on the task.

The mind is most open to new ideas when it is in the diffuse mode. Marketing experts know this, which is part of the power of Facebook, Instagram, social media consumption platforms. You’re not actually interested in those shoes. Or are you? They follow you around the internet. Pining for your attention. Because you are more open to new ideas when you are unfocused, marketers have found a perfect time to ’try them on’ you. Professor Oakely describes how students eager to learn a new topic should leverage diffused modes of thinking.

“To get to a new thought pattern, you need a different way of thinking…by the diffuse mode. [In her pinball analogy], look at how widely spaced the rubber bumpers are. Thought takes off, look at how it moves widely, bounces around. It could travel a long way before being interrupted by hitting a bumper. In this diffuse mode of thinking, you can look at things broadly. “

Lack of focus in the diffused mode can lead new connections and generating new ideas. Creativity, after all, is just connecting thing in new and useful ways. Realizing this distinction is a key first step.

2. Embrace strategic procrastination and its ensuing discomfort.

A common problem is to move too quickly from one mode to the next, says Adam Grant. All too often Originals move prematurely from the generative mode (“I have a grat idea”) to the evaluative mode (“this is actually a terrible idea”). New ideas are unfamiliar, and therefore uncomfortable, and ultimately frightening. The natural tendency to dismiss new ideas in favor of the familiar appears to be hard-wired into human biology: several studies have shown this to be true across cultures, demographics, and time.

Grant goes on to describe “strategic procrastination” as a way to give yourself time to come up with new ideas. More ideas. Recall that neuroscientist David Eagleman says “The brain takes the path of least resistance because it’s the most efficient”. Ease of retrieval of an idea is linked to prioritization in our minds; first ideas appear better, because they’re first — a classic example of Anchoring bias. The first idea serves as an anchor in your mind, weighing down and influencing your next ideas. Grant recounts this in his own experiences in creative work[1]:

“What I discovered was that in every creative project, there are moments that require thinking more laterally and, yes, more slowly. My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.”

Creativity needs time. In the current era of productivity p0rn, namely the techniques, tactics, and tricks for maximizing personal productivity, the exploratory mind is jettisoned for hyper-focused, hyper-intentional activities. Your to do list, and an entire cottage industry, ask “how will this task right now measurably check off an item on your to do list?” Like Sisyphus, checking off the to do list never ends, and for some drives a primal desire to “get things done”.  But this compelling pull is antithetical to an exploratory mind. All too often the mind comes up with the first idea — the laziest idea — and then acts on it. You have boxes to check, after all.

Strategic procrastination is the effort required to choose not to act on your first idea. This intentional waiting period allows you to consider other ideas, and relieves any pressure to move quickly. Writers stopping mid-sentence. Artists stopping mid-piece. Da Vinci was a quintessential procrastinator, taking over 15 years to paint the Mona Lisa. But this wasn’t just procrastinating. In the time from starting the work to finishing it, Da Vinci studied optics, light, refraction, and anatomy — all of which were required to produce a masterpiece in the end. Giving yourself time in the generative or diffuse mode, like the famed Archimedes in the bath, to sit with the discomfort of not checking off your task, feeling OK not knowing the answer, and embracing the idea that your first idea is likely your worst idea. An idea whose time is not yet ready, will have its day, and when it does,

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come” — Victor Hugo

3. Connect things.

Cognitive diversity is when you come up with your best ideas, says Celeste Headlee, musician, journalist, and author of We Need To Talk. “Agreement is not a great goal if what you’re trying to do is be innovative or creative in your problem-solving. Cognitive diversity is extremely helpful. [3]”. Sharing this same ethos, Ray Dalio, founder of one of the world’s largest investment firms Bridgewater Associates, believes that consensus is the enemy of innovation. Dalio says, “I believe that the more diverse and valuable perspectives one can get, the better one will see things.” Encouraging different viewpoints via a free-for-all, company-wide feedback culture, one of Dalio’s many Principles, ensures cognitive diversity reaches every level at Bridgewater.

Curating cognitive diversity is an intensely personal activity. It requires exploring widely. Getting information from multiple sources. Follow people. Unfollow people.  Listen to podcasts. Read more books. Subscribe to newsletters. More signal; less noise.  Avoiding the temptation to read books cover-to-cover, and even OK to put it down; re-read your favorites, the classics. Channel your inner Marie Kondo and ask yourself, “does this [insert activity here] spark joy?”. Reading, thinking, curating, shouldn’t be work. No single path can be taken to establish cognitive diversity, but this is key to connecting things.

“Originality often consists in linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected,” wrote W. I. B. Beveridge in his classic 1957 guide The Art of Scientific Investigation [open library]. Beveridge, a professor of Animal Pathology at the University of Cambridge, devotes two distinct chapters to Imagination and Intuition in a thorough discussion of the steps and requirements of scientific investigation. Quoting Einstein, “the really valuable factor is intuition”, Beveridge considers the imprecise boundary between these concepts as key to new ideas. Intuition, he defines, as a “sudden enlightenment or comprehension of a situation, a clarifying idea which springs into the consciousness, often, thou not necessarily, when one is not consciously thinking of that subject” — a Eureka! moment. Along with a love of the topic, the most essential attribute is an “insatiable curiosity” concludes Beveridge. Regardless of the type of work, a curiosity to learn lessons from other fields and an openness to new experiences is key to connecting things.

Professional curator, and one-woman tour de force that is Brain Pickings, Maria Popova says, “longer ago than I can remember, I intuited the conviction that creativity is a combinatorial force — it thrives on cross-pollinating existing ideas, often across divergent disciplines and sensibilities, and combining them into something new, into what we proudly call our original creations.” Papova’s writing is drawn from her "extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling." Her curation, and ‘dot-connecting’, is among the finest examples of a modern-day librarian — a tome of knowledge — and was recognized by the US Library of Congress as such.

4. Suspend reality for a moment.

Removing constraints frees your thinking, whether contraints of time or possibility. Exploratory thinking requires iteration of ideas, connecting and re-connecting thoughts. While not always possible, “the advantages of acting quickly and being first are often outweighed by the disadvantages”, writes Grant, again in Originals. “It’s true that the early bird gets the worm, but we can’t forget that the early worm gets caught.”

Removing the constraints of real world or known world, i.e. suspending reality, can make it easier to solve a problem. These “thought experiments” make divergent thinking easier by permitting more connections. One of the most well-known thought-experimenters was Einstein, who famously posed thought experiments to his colleague and good friend Michele Besso. Einstein often pondered what it’d be like to ride on train traveling at the speed of light, and how a light beam next to him might appear. Removing constraints of the physical world allowed Einstein to make key conceptual breakthroughs that culminated in his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, and eventually the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

When you don’t have all the information or are seeking ‘truths’, an exploratory mind is key to get you there. However, the human brain is wired for a path of least resistance, and is primed to switch from an idea-generating state to an idea-evaluating state, and rejecting all other incoming possibilities. The keys must be under the lamp post. To avoid settling on the first connection, continuing to work, to think, to make more connections, leads to more ideas. More ideas equates to better ideas. Letting go of the first connection is difficult, but it’s necessary to make more connections.

“When we judge greatness”, Grant says, “we focus not on averages, but on peaks”, intimating that many ideas will lead to the best ideas. Similarly, when we find greatness, it won’t be under the lamp post.

Further Reading:

1. Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate

2. Marc Andreessen’s guide to productivity

3. Interview with Celeste Headlee