How to Apply Lateral Thinking to Your Creative Work

…Cuz it’s wild, it’s zany, it’s…well, it’s about learning to look at things outside the box those things create for you, and isn’t that what good writing always should do?

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by Shane Snow

Pretend that you’re trapped in a magical room with only two exits. Through the first exit is a room made from a giant magnifying glass, and the blazing hot sun will fry you to death. Through the second door is a room with a fire-breathing dragon. Which do you go through?

The first door, of course. Simply wait until the sun goes down.

he answer to this puzzle is an example of what psychologists call “lateral thinking.” The most elegant solution presents itself when you approach the problem sideways, rather than answering it head-on. Though the question is presented as a binary choice—one option or the other—when you disregard the assumption that you must act immediately, the “best” answer becomes obvious.

[Ed. note: this post is inspired by Shane’s book Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success, available on Amazon now.]

Like our magical room, marketers have a bad habit of charring great terms to death. In business, we tend to tout “creativity” and “innovation” and “thinking outside the box” until they mean nothing. However, when you unwrap all of its buzzwords and euphemisms, history shows that creative breakthroughs all have one thing in common: they occur when people employ lateral thinking.

“We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries,” explains Edward de Bono, who coined the term in 1967. “Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces.” It’s the art of reframing questions, attacking problems sideways. They way a computer hacker or, say, MacGyver would think.

Breakthroughs, by very definition, only occur when assumptions are broken. In creative fields, this often happens when people break rules that aren’t actually rules at all, but rather simply conventions. Pablo Picasso changed art forever by smashing the “rules” of perspective, color, proportion. His Cubism took hold in Paris faster than Van Gogh’s impressionism—and any other new form, for that matter. Apple turned the tech world on its head by radically simplifying music and mice when everyone else equated more buttons and more megabytes and more jargon with better. When we look at great inventions and solutions to problems throughout history—the kinds that make what came before instantly obsolete—we see this pattern again and again.

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