When Tony Buzan lectured about creativity he would set delegates the challenge of how many uses for a paperclip they could come up with in 60 seconds. Research shows this follows a typical bell curve with an average of less than eight and genius level of 16 or more.
Tony would then set the same task but this time seeking non-uses of a paperclip. Despite the seemingly much larger number of things it couldn’t be used for, results were not much different.
Creativity studies show that as we get more educated, creativity diminishes. Given a creativity test, kindergarten preschool kids score 95% or above. By the time you get to primary school it has dropped to 75%. At senior school the average is 50% and after graduating from university it’s a mere 25%. If you give the test to a professional or a highly educated adult they will score around 10%. Why should education lead to diminished creativity? You would have thought that, the more knowledge you have to draw upon, the more associations you can create. The problem is that in school and business there is often one right answer – anything that is outside of the norm and thus creative is seen as wrong and even foolish.
We learn to put up barriers restricting potential new avenues of thought. Returning to the paperclip test, Tony would ask the group to collectively list the most creative non-uses. The delegates would then be challenged to disprove each non-use in turn. For example, “you can’t use a paperclip to quench your thirst.” – What if you have an extra-large paperclip? This could be used as a makeshift pick to dig a shallow well. Straighten two paperclips and bend at right angles to make dowsing rods. It would be possible to have a paperclip made of ice which you could melt? If you had had a valuable gold paperclip you could sell it and buy a drink. As soon as you start challenging assumptions, i.e. a paperclip must be small and made of steel, you open up countless possibilities. Everyone can become limitlessly creative scoring well above genius level in the test. In all his years of lecturing, Tony never found a non-use for a paperclip which could be substantiated without a caveat needing to be added. For example, “You can’t use a paperclip to break the laws of physics” – for this to be true you must assume that the laws of physics are immutable and set forever. Obviously not the case, as demonstrated by Einstein’s Relativity overturning Newtonian theories of gravitation and myriad other advances.
There are many other techniques which can be used to break out of old established ways of thinking to innovate and be creative.
With Tony’s fondness for the paperclip, he had sets of cufflinks in the shape of paperclips. Thanks to artist Lorraine Gill, Tony’s lifelong friend – I have been given these as a keepsake of the great man and a constant reminder not to let myself be boxed in by ‘conventional wisdom’.
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