Throughout my career as an executive coach, and mentor of young people including fresh MBAs, creative designers and motivated managers, there has been one common piece of advice that I always give: Don’t try too hard. Of course, this seems contradictory to what we usually hear, especially when the greatest B-schools and D-schools in the world are encouraging their students to try their best and push beyond their own limits. Every day they are asked to try harder, to achieve excellence and perfection. That’s the academic world.
However, perfection is nearly impossible and often useless. Most of the time, emphasizing perfection acts as an obstacle to progress. A perfectionist makes a terrible strategist or manager. And they are barriers to getting to a creative solution. As a result, many high performers develop a pattern of thinking, assuming that they have to try extremely hard in order to have the best solution. This is not the case. Trying your best is a good thing, of course, but that is different from trying too hard. Similarly, thinking hard and strategically calculating every option and scenario is critical – but that is different from overthinking. This goes for strategists and designers alike. When designers try to improve an asset by putting more and more on it, they tend to forget the very core of the design and its essence. Over-strategizing and over-designing are synonymous with trying too hard. There is a point at which you need to realize that either you simply don’t have enough information to understand the situation, the information you’re using to make decisions is inaccurate, or the problem is simply beyond your intellectual and professional capacity. So what do you have to do? Here’s some advice to help you:
1. Surround yourself with inspirational others.
Whenever you’re dealing with complex problems and know you need to be in a new headspace in order to be productive, provide that for yourself. Finding the right people to exchange ideas with is the most effective way to do so. Allow dialogues to flow freely and easily – like art – and new ideas will eventually emerge. Don’t force it.
2. Try to be more visual.
Use visual diagrams to help you along the way. Nothing gets an idea across faster than drawing it out and then drawing it again, but differently. It doesn’t matter how bad of a sketcher you are – it’s all about the idea behind your sketch. It is a process to express your thoughts. Think of it as sensemaking, not as creating an outcome.
3. Stop trying to tell yourself that you’re creative.
The matter of whether or not you’re truly creative is not the issue. A lot of people try too hard to show, talk, pose, and act in a way that proves they are creative. The more they do it, the less creative they become. Truly creative people don’t force themselves into a creative mode. There is no switch to flick, no creative thinking hats to put on. Real creative people get into a flow by going through visual artifacts, data and creative dialogue and it gets them there.
4. Mess things up and mix things up.
Another good way to be more creative is to play at the intersection of the bad, stupid, wrong, and impossible. Mix and remix your ideas and let them mess with your mental models and allow you to look at things in very different ways. The notion that something is bad, stupid, wrong, or impossible is a cultural construct.
5. Avoid the paralysis analysis trap.
Many consultant teams spend way too much time pulling data when building hypotheses and make the mistake of thinking that the more data they have, the better. They end up spending 90% of their time and energy looking at that data, forgetting that they are dealing with a disruption threat to which less than 1% of data is relevant.
6. Walk, run, and jog – just don’t sit.
This is a simple one. Get away from your desk and out of your of office. As cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz explains in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes – which chronicles her walks around a city block with eleven different experts – we all have our own incomplete experiences which we call “reality” and we use this “adaptive ignorance” to ease our minds and focus on specific problems. But sometimes the problems we’re looking at may not be the problems we’re meant to solve. By looking at the world with fresh eyes and in a new way, we can become fascinated by things that previously went unseen. So go take a walk.
I am not trying to tell you not to try hard. But at some point, you need to stop and think if it is working.
The full article will appear in the next issue of MISC Magazine, available January 2017.