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Thinking originally about the future

Innovation

As we go through life our brains are constantly memorising and filing away things we experience and people we meet. This is so we can know what to expect, to know how the world works for next time we experience a given situation.

But when it comes to thinking about the future, research has found that we use the same part of the brain for envisioning the future as we do for recalling memories. So, if you try to envision the car of the future, for example, your brain will help you out by serving up existing car images to help you build this vision.

Or, if you want to think about supermarkets in 2050, your brain will present you with images and memories of supermarkets you’ve visited in the past.

This clearly limits our ability to make the necessary leaps to accurately predict the future. How can we make our own original predictions if they’re so wedded to things we have already experienced or discovered? So we end up with slightly advanced versions of present-day things, so if you search Google for “concept car” or “futuristic car” you get lots of images like the one at the top of this post, where they are essentially the cars of today but with a slightly more aerodynamic look.

You may have heard of openness to experience which is, according to many researchers, the top behaviour trait associated with creative thinking. If you have a high level of openness to experience you’re likely to have an active imagination, and you have aesthetic sensitivity – which essentially means you appreciate things like music and art. You’ll also have a preference for variety, and a high level of intellectual curiosity.

Openness is one of the Big Five personality traits (the others being conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism).

It can be helpful to view this by looking at what some call the T-shaped person. The vertical part of the T is your domain expertise – so your knowledge and experience of the areas directly related to your job.

The horizontal part of the T is your breadth of interests and experience in other areas – so for example you might have started your career in a different industry, or you might have several diverse hobbies unrelated to the kinds of things you work on during the week.

Here’s a framework we often use in workshops, with examples of what you could write in each section:

The more you can add to the horizontal part of the T the better – as it’s these diverse interests and experiences that mean you can draw on different approaches to problems and make unexpected connections. And it’s these connections from seemingly unrelated areas that often make the best ideas or solutions.

To get better at coming up with original ideas and thinking about the future it’s useful to know more about more things. We should seek out variety, be curious about the unusual, and know a little about a lot. This way, we’re able to use this richer and more diverse store of memories to fill in the blanks of the future in new, unexpected ways.

It can also help you adapt better to deal with roadblocks, unexpected events, and to take advantage of new opportunities.

You can download a blank version of the T-Shape worksheet here. See how you get on – if you find it easy to complete the horizontal section, that’s great. If you struggle a little, give yourself licence to try some new things or develop some new interests. It will help you see problems and opportunities from different perspectives.

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