We view creative geniuses as a breed apart. Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci — we believe that these innovators have an innate set of skills that we ordinary folks could never hope to obtain.
But that is just the myth that Dr. Roberta Ness, author of “Genius Unmasked” and “Innovation Generation” hopes to debunk. She thinks that those we view as geniuses actually work from a toolbox — one filled with tools we could all use in our lives.
“There’s 30 years of research that suggests that creativity is very teachable,” Ness says. “People can improve their creativity skills two to threefold … [but] just like learning a musical instrument, practice makes perfect.”
Ness should know — she’s in the business of helping people practice creativity. In her course on “Innovative Thinking” at the University of Texas, she provides students with a concrete set of skills that she believes will help them see the world differently.
Thinking Outside the Frame
Picture yourself in a restaurant, ordering a plate of linguine. The waiter delivers your food piping hot and asks if you need anything else. You politely ask for a little Parmesan cheese to go with your pasta — and in response the waiter says, “go to the kitchen and get it yourself.”
Ness calls this sort of puzzling interaction a “frame-shift.” When you go to a restaurant, you have a set of assumptions and expectations that Ness calls a “frame” — that you’ll order food, that your waiter will serve you, and that you’ll leave a tip, for example. The concept applies to professional fields as well. Just imagine the reaction to the first man who suggested the Earth was round.
“When [you] frame-shift…you’re shocked,” she explains. “Your immediate reaction is a rejection reaction. You don’t know what to do. You’re surprised.”
In order to innovate, Ness argues, you must push through that initial rejection and break your frames.
Following the Frame-Breakers
So who has been able to push through the frames and become an innovative thinker? Ness gives the example of scientist Stanley Milgram, who conducted a series of experiments designed to calculate whether people value obedience to authority over the feelings of another person.
In his study, Milgram instructed the experiment’s subject to deliver shocks to a person they believed to be a fellow participant in the experiment, but was, in fact, a co-conspirator with Milgram. The shocks were to be delivered each time Milgram’s co-conspirator did not correctly answer one of the subject’s questions, and increased in intensity as they provided more wrong answers.
If the subject of the experiment began to protest, or ask if the shocks were harmful, Milgram would simply say “please proceed,” or, “I take responsibility for the experiment.” Under these conditions, two-thirds of all experimental subjects administered a shock that — if actually delivered — would kill the other participant.
While Milgram’s experiment is extremely controversial, Ness argues that it is one of the most convincing examples of frame shifting.
“People had the expectation, prior to Milgram’s experiment, that humanity implied a certain moral conduct — that all of us, if put in a situation like that, would behave morally,” she explains. “The very fact that he was willing to conduct that experiment, that he thought about it, that he did it in this extraordinarily scientific, carefully defined way, [made] it very hard to say that this experiment did not mean what Milgram interpreted it to mean.”
Channeling Your Inner Genius
In addition to frame-shifting, there are a few other skills you can use to start thinking like a creative genius. The first, which Ness calls “expansion,” is simple — think big.
“[Innovators] don’t ask little questions,” she says. “They ask great big gigantic questions.”
So don’t be afraid to think big — after all, if you ask a question as large as Darwin’s “how did all things come to be,” you might be surprised at the revolutionary concepts you discover.
Ness also advocates single-mindedness. Don’t be afraid to rid yourself of distractions — everything from competing projects to social media — and devote your whole mind to one question.
“To ask and answer and think through very, very complex questions … and to really do this kind of frame shifting requires a lot of time and a lot of concentration,” she says.
No one ever said that being a genius was easy — but if you open Ness’ toolbox, it just might be attainable.