When you are young, the ability to see a huge variety of solutions was a breeze. There seem to be endless possible answers to questions. You are not constrained by convention or rules, you are totally creative. This is a skill that we can all actually get back, it is known as divergent thinking.

Divergent thinking is the ability to see many different possibilities to a problem. It is opposite to the idea that there is one correct solution to a question. It is an ability that has been demonstrated to diminish with age.

It’s true! NASA Says So.

There is a very famous study of divergent thinking. The study began in 1968. It was a longitudinal study that lasted 17 years. In the experiment, researchers asked 1600 5-year-olds to come up with as many things to do with a paperclip as they could possibly think of. A creativity test used by NASA to select engineers.

What they found was the 98% of this age group scored in the highly creative range. Over the years they retested the children at different ages. They found that at age 10 that the figure had dropped to 30%, then 12% at 15 and when they tested 280,000 adults in 1985 they found that only 2% of them sat in the highly creative category. 

George Land, one of the main researchers in the study went on to conclude that creative thinking is available to everyone. It is through mass education that “non-creative behaviour is learnt.” When someone goes to school it is the start of a process which ultimately diminishes people’s ability to see other possibilities.   

We start to experience peer pressure to conform, we start to narrow down the options and simply regurgitate facts rather than exploring ideas.

As we get older we start to read the same newspapers, watch the same films, eat the same food and hang out with the same friends. We use these methods to simply reinforce our own beliefs. 

We don’t often like to challenge what we know or explore another perspective.

It is this shrinking in our experiences that ultimately shuts us off to the possibilities that are open to us. This begins in an education system that encourages conformity both explicitly and more on a subconscious level through cultural norms and social pressures.  

Can we improve our Divergent thinking?

It seems logical enough that if you once had a very high level of divergent thinking it is perfectly possible to develop and nurture it back to health. Well, it seems you can and here are a few ways you can do it for yourself.

Challenge Yourself to Experience New Things

Now I am not suggesting you sell your home and move to a far-off land and live in a tent. By simply just trying something new every day you can expose yourself to a new way of doing things or thinking about something.

Whether it is eating a new sort of food, walking a different way to work or simply reading a news story that challenges your own view, give it a go. Enter the experience with an open mind and you will pick up new perspectives and ideas. 

Break Your Patterns

This can be a tough ask for anyone to do, I know I struggle. The first step is to start recognising patterns that you have. Do you clean in a certain way? Do you take the same route every morning? Do you drink the same coffee every day?

Once you have observed your personal patterns take a chance and do something differently.

This will again expose you to new ideas and ways of doing things that you may never have even considered in the past. This can lead to discoveries that you could not simply of conceived of before. 

Try New Ways of Doing Things

We are all guilty at some point in our lives of completing a task slowly because we want to use a method we are comfortable with. We often rely on our knowledge in order to get things done whether they are efficient or not. Instead of doing this challenge yourself to find new and modern ways of doing things.

Also, look for ideas from other disciplines. For example, if you need to ensure you have an effective diary, could you borrow ideas from project management? Could you use project management software to enhance your work output? Could you look at how other people split their time to maximise their performance?

Borrowing ideas from other places helps you develop the ability to create links between different ideas and come up with new ways of doing things.

Collaborate with Others

We are often taught that great ideas are down to individuals and moments of inspiration when in fact most great ideas come from groups of people. They build on each other’s ideas and form new ways of thinking. If you partake in more collaborative working you find that the exposure you are experiencing enhances your ability to see new connections and possibly new ways of doing things. Collaboration is inextricably linked to creativity. It is in groups where most divergent thinking happens.

So there you go. You were once a great divergent thinker, then you may have lost it but there is a way back. Try these new ways of doing things and let us know how you get on.