Blankets & Telescopes

Have you ever stared up into the night sky and let your mind wonder “what if….”?

When I was in college, I explored several academic disciplines beyond my major in public policy. One of those subjects that drew me in quickly was astronomy. I became fascinated by the vast openness of the universe. More importantly, my other studies were focused on learning everything about the world around us, while the study of the universe was about discovering how much we really didn’t know.

One of my professors was adamant that we look at our universe not solely through the precision and focus of the modern telescope but through the lens of our imagination. He used to say “choose a blanket before you choose a telescope”.  He wanted us to solve the mysteries of science by tapping into our creativity. He knew we could spark our imagination by simply lying back and staring into the night sky.

To this day, I will walk out on my deck on a clear evening and spend a few minutes just gazing up to recapture that wonderment we all had as a child. Remember that time before we knew so much we couldn’t imagine anymore? Losing focus as I gaze at vast networks of stars and galaxies, I find that my mind shifts into a different and more creative gear.

Research suggests that losing focus can boost our ability to think about new ideas, new connections, and new perspectives. In a recent Washington Post article, Stanford psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala explains why “spacing out” is so good for you. She even suggests several techniques to help “unfocus” and boost creativity.

“Truly successful people don’t come up with great ideas through focus alone.” – Dr. Seppala

Some of you will quickly note my apparent contradiction. In my last post, I discussed the power of focus for any organization seeking to advance their mission and serve their customers. Well, over the years I have discovered that focus and creativity are not mutually exclusive but rather dependent on each other. That is why I felt the need to write this post.

Creativity is all about connecting thoughts and ideas in new ways. Whether you achieve this through Dr. Seppala’s techniques or simply staring into the night sky, the power of creativity is undeniable. However, in order to take those new ideas and shape them into action, one must return to individual and team focus. More importantly, in order to decide which of those new ideas to advance forward, one must often make critical choices and say “no” to some things in order to achieve greatness in others. That sounds a lot like organizational focus to me.

I have watched many teams and organizations struggle with what they perceive to be an “either/or” decision between focus and creativity. However, the key is finding a way to not only embrace both but also to excel at both. Knowing when and how each is important for your own organization will guide you along the crossroads of focus and creativity. Grab a blanket and create new ideas by opening your mind. You may even need to “goof off” for a while to do it. Then, find a telescope and block out the ambient light to focus in on those ideas that you can truly take to greatness. I like to say that blankets and telescopes will solve the mysteries of the universe, but each will never do it alone.

Dave Seitz, Cofounder of Think Space, where new ideas are born