“Lovers of wisdom must open their minds to many things.”
[Heraclitus, 25 centuries ago]
Many things go out of fashion to be replaced by others. One day they are business imperatives, the next day they are gone and forgotten. Along with the buzzwords, awards, and puzzling fads we have seen develop and fizzle, one trend stands tall as valuable —the ability to create.
But there is a creativity gap in our organizations and in our lives. While the expectation that we will use creativity at work has gone from 5 percent to 35 percent, only 1 in 4 people feel they are living up to their creative potential. We can create more by getting better at it.
We can expand our capacity for creative ideas. The most successful and smartest people —Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Marie Curie, Brian Eno to name a few— are constant and deliberate learners. Their reading lists alone demonstrate how they are curious beyond the specific domain in which they operate.
When a door closes... another opens
Acquiring a broader view of issues is valuable especially as all the easy problems to solve are taken and the complexity of our current environment calls for better thinking. When we say “that's not my area,” we start limiting our view of a problem to what we know, or a narrow definition.
“As a strategy for managing information, specialization is essential,” says Roger von Oech in A Whack on the Side of the Head. “There is so much going on that it's impossible to pay attention to everything.” It is also a good way to function in the world. When we specialize, in business, sports, any area in which we want to be effective, we need to narrow our focus.
But, when we narrow it too much, we run the risk of knowing more and more about less and less. This is especially true for creative thinking. Keeping an open mind is one way to approach learning. If we are looking to master the ability to think critically, however, a more proactive method will serve us better.
“I think of myself as a human being.”
An interviewer asked legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee if he thought of himself as Chinese or an American. He responded, “I think of myself as a human being.” During his lifetime, Lee formulated a complex personal philosophy —a synthesis of Eastern and Western ideals— that extolled the virtues of knowledge and total mastery of one's self.
Author John Little, a student of Lee's “jeet kune do” form of martial art, gained access to most of his philosophical writings within the personal library of the Bruce Lee estate. In The Warrior Within, Little says Lee saw himself as a bridge between East and West.
Moving from one cultural context to another does encourage new ways of looking at things by necessity. The differences between Eastern and Western ways of thinking are stark. This is a concept illustrated well in The Four Feathers, set in 1884 Sudan and adapted from the A.E.W. Mason 1902 novel by the same name. The narrative voice in much of the book is Ethne, Harry Faversham's beloved who struggles to “do the right thing.”
The primary concept Bruce Lee applies in his philosophy is the concept of the empty mind. Approaching situations prepared, but also available to let go of thinking. In martial arts it's a concept we come across often. For example, according to Master Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of karate-do or empty-hand, “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
A schoolteacher earlier in life who was struggling to make ends meet, Funakoshi was trained in the Confucian classics. After decades of study under the foremost masters in the Okinawan art of self-defense, he gave up his livelihood to devote the rest of his life to the propagation of the Way of Karate.
In Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Funakoshi says, “Any man will be able, after sufficient practice, to accomplish remarkable feats of strength, but he may go only so far and no farther. There is a limit to human physical strength that no one can exceed.”
The mind can go where the body cannot enter. Not striking back when people are aggressive is also at the core of Bruce Lee's philosophy. Its underpinning is the idea of accepting oneself and learning to become our own masters.
Continuous self-improvement is one of Lee's core messages. He says:
If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it'll spread over into the rest of your life. It'll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.
The limitless mind
“All types of knowledge, ultimately mean self-knowledge.” [Bruce Lee]
We're used to thinking of online information, access to products and commerce, people and social connection as limitless. But in our rush to dive into the bonanza we forget the fertile ground of our mind. Properly exercised through learning and practice, we build our curiosity and creative side.
The discipline we acquire when we commit to learning continuously helps us be ready in response to challenges; and expansive in search of opportunity. Just like explorers. In A Whack on the Side of the Head von Oech says:
A good explorer knows that looking for good ideas is like prospecting for gold. If you look in the same old places, you'll find tapped out veins. But if you venture off the beaten path, you'll improve your chances of discovering new idea lodes.
To be an explorer you need to believe that there is a lot of good information around you, and all you have to do is go find it. If you go to an airport, you'll find ideas there. If you go to a museum, you'll find ideas there as well.
[...] the more divergent your sources, the more original the idea you create will likely be.
Many good ideas have been discovered because someone poked around in an outside industry or discipline, and applied what he found to his or her own problem. Mathematician John von Neumann analyzed poker-table behavior to create the “game theory” model of economics. Nineteenth century English gardener Joseph Paxton modeled his design of the world's first glass-andiron building, the Crystal Palace, on his studies of the cantilevered rib structure of the giant water lily Victoria amazonica.
Designer Charles Eames borrowed from his experience making custom-fitted plywood splints for wounded airmen during World War II to create a new line of aesthetically stunning chairs. Physicist Albert Einstein applied the non-Euclidean geometry of nineteenth century mathematician Georg Riemann to represent his four-dimensional map of light. Database developer Erik Lumer created a more flexible customer-profiling system for the banking industry by studying how worker ants cluster their dead when cleaning their nest. And World War I military designers borrowed from the cubist art of Picasso and Braque to create more efficient camouflage patterns.
We should not be tainted by rituals or dogmas, but feel free to apply what we learn to how we approach what we do. As Lee says, “Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”
In The Warrior Within Little explains how Lee tapped into his chi, a “vast reservoir of free-flowing energy” within all people that “when channeled to our muscles, can give us great strength and, when channeled to our brain, can give us great insight and understanding.”
We have no limits, only plateaus we can learn to go beyond one form, adapt, and build our own.