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What is Art? How to use Thought Experiments to Drive Creativity


The Business Case for thought experiments: breaking an idea logjam.


When we're working with our teammates on a particularly thorny problem, the brain can sometimes deaden, and no useful signal seems to come from it.


We feel heavy and irritable because time goes by, the work isn't complete and we have less and less time to do it in. Bickering might set in, perhaps a blame game. Pressure mounts!


That's where the thought-experiment comes in - participating in a related or unrelated mental activity to work through a scenario, positing hypotheticals, trying to create rules, identifying challenges, soliciting solutions.


The ideal distraction through abstraction, thought experiments are a great way to flush out "noise" and get us to clear things out, get back on track (eventually).


When I used to lead writing workshops, I would often bring this question up - "What is Art?"


Suddenly, people that wouldn't be caught dead in the Museum of Modern Art find themselves Googling definitions, finding examples or counter examples, debating vociferously. All of a sudden we switched from talking about cloud computing architecture or whatever else the company is working on - to paints, oils, clay and the like, the brain gets reactivated and we find ourselves refreshed.

To be honest, I truly didn't care what answers people had to share.


I cared more about where their answers, and their thinking, took them.


The point, you see, isn't about art. Art is just an example, any contentious amorphous concept - beauty, meaning, consciousness - can be a stand-in.


Art just seems to be one that gets the maximum people involved and engaged.

The point was the wide array of perspectives that came out of the discussion, and people learning something about themselves.

Some people learned that they just HAD to be right.

Others that they had (or lacked any) aesthetic sense.


But the best moment of all was a weird kind of a synectic moment (hard to create but so worth it) - the conscious brain connecting to something you're thinking about subconsciously, and making patterns to solve a problem.


Suddenly, the art discussion helps us figure out the problem we were having with cloud computing. Thus, "what is art?" somehow got us to "hey, what if we tried it this way?"


That's the point - the brain NEVER stopped thinking about the first topic when we switched to art, it just went underground so the conscious thinking portion of the brain could rest, all the while building up to a Eureka moment.


Closing thoughts


When next you're having a hard time with a problem, or a presentation, or communicating an idea, just try thinking about art, or donuts, or coffee. Talk about that topic till you're blue in the face - and hopefully laughing about the argument you're having over something non-consequential. Perhaps that gets us to see ourselves and our teammates as humans again, rather than an obstacle to our promotion or getting credit for a project, and the culture resets again.


Once you've solved the problem, rejoice, then maybe draw something on a piece of paper.


Because, why not?