The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Accidental Creative. Learn more or read a free chapter here.
A few years ago my family visited Lake Erie for a long Fourth of July holiday. As evening approached, we were preparing to walk to the pier to watch the fireworks when our five-year-old middle son started getting nervous. We explained that fireworks are fun and that there was no reason to be afraid, but he was having none of it. We finally persuaded him to make the trek to the lake, but he protested all the way. When we arrived at the perfect vantage point and began setting up our blankets, his protests grew frantic.
“Owen,” I said, “fireworks are perfectly safe. They’re not going to fall on you.”
“I’m not worried about them falling on me,” Owen replied. “Fireworks make my feet fuzzy.”
“They make your feet fuzzy?” I replied, puzzled.
“Yes. Like at Disney World.”
We had taken a vacation to Disney World the previous year, and because his short legs prevented him from keeping up, Owen had ridden my shoulders around the park. At one point an unexpected plume of fireworks startled him. At the time, he had been sitting on my shoulders for an hour or so, and his legs had fallen asleep. Shaken out of his reverie by the fireworks, he realized that he had lost all feeling in his feet. His four-year-old mind assumed that it was the fireworks that had made his feet “fuzzy.”
For more than a year, I realized, Owen had carried this assumption with him and had lived in terror of feet-zapping fire- works. I was eventually able to convince him that fireworks have absolutely nothing to do with what he felt in his feet when he was on my shoulders, but to this day he is still a little nervous around them.
What my son experienced is something we must guard against in our creative work. Our minds are excellent at solving problems and forming patterns. It’s the primary reason we’re able to survive past the age of two. We learn from our experiences, and some of those lessons keep us from making mistakes that could significantly harm us, like touching a hot stove or punching some- one bigger than us. But this ability to connect the dots can also cause us to adopt false assumptions about cause and effect.
For example, it’s easy to assume that because something has always been done a certain way, that must be the one and only right way to do it. We sometimes develop the assumption that because a system or method brought us success in one instance, it will always do so. Or we may assume that because something didn’t work in one instance, it will never work under any circumstances. Any of these assumptions can, over time, be disastrous to our creative process because they limit how we look at problems.
False assumptions can limit the options we have at our disposal as we attempt to generate ideas. Can you think of any false assumptions that have limited your ability to do your best work?