Revisiting My “You’re Smarter Than You Think” Article nearly 40 Years Later

In 1978, Reader’s Digest commissioned me to write an article on how to improve your creativity. I’d not thought of the piece in several decades, and might not ever have done so again were it not for the Japanese educational publishing house, Obunsha. Their editors wrote earlier this week to request permission to reprint a few paragraphs from the piece in a textbook to be published next month for students learning English as a second language .

Obunsha didn’t indicate whether the excerpts would be used to demonstration how to use the English language presentably or how not to, but either way I’m honored that they managed to find the piece after all these years. They reminded me that the article was originally published in Kiwanis Magazine, the civic club periodical. But that was just RD being RD: the extremely successful (in those days) magazine made sure it always had articles that it wanted to excerpt on hand by commissioning people like me to write them and then placing the results in publications like Kiwanis Magazine and pretending to discover them and reproduce them for their millions of readers.

The article titled “You’re Smarter Than You Think,” was popular enough that the Digest reproduced it for years as a reprint. These days it does seem a little dated (especially the examples), but I think the advice in it is as useful as ever. Hope you enjoy it!

(c) 1978 Dudley Lynch

• Police in a midwestern city were stumped. A fast-moving burglary team kept breaking into clothing stores, stripping the garment racks like hungry piranhas and slipping away before police could respond to the alarm systems. Was there any way to stop them—or at least slow them down?

Suddenly, one detective had an idea. “Alternate your hanger hooks,” he told the city’s merchants. “Turn one toward the wall, and the next toward the aisle-all the way down the rack.” When the next alarm went off, police caught the hapless thieves still removing garments one at a time.

• An old frame church in New England stood in desperate need of exterior paint, so the minister recruited a half-dozen volunteers from his congregation. But he couldn’t get them to show up for the job-until he had a devilish inspiration. He divided the building into six segments, then, in bold letters three feet high, painted a volunteer’s name on each segment. Shortly thereafter, each recruit dutifully arrived to paint his segment, fulfill his pledge—and avoid all that public notoriety.

• Not long ago, when I was pushing my wife’s stalled car with my own, our bumpers locked. With a strong friend, I tried to bounce the bumpers loose. No go. Next I tried a jack. That didn’t work either. Then my wife suggested backing my car up on the curb and leaving her smaller car at street level. Eureka! The cars immediately sprang apart.

We’ve all met people like this, with an uncanny knack for solving problems, and we wonder how they do it. They don’t appear to be geniuses; yet, somehow, they think differently from the rest of us.

Over the last 15 or 20 years, social scientists have been taking their first serious look at this power of creative thinking, and have written more than 1500 doctoral theses and 2000 books on it. On available evidence, scholars now believe creativity is far more common than previously thought. In fact, most researchers claim there is a spark of genius in each of us, waiting to be freed.

Here, from experts in several fields, are five tips for freeing your creativity potential:

Rekindle childhood curiosity. A man I know spent an hour trying to rescue his young son’s pet frog from the bottom of a narrow shaft on their property. He used a long stick, then a rope with a loop at the end, then an open-ended can on a string. Nothing worked, and he finally gave up. Minutes later, his five- year-old son appeared at the front door-with the frog! The boy had hit on the idea of flooding the shaft with a garden hose and floating the frog to the surface.

In the wild kingdom of their imagination, children are forever coming up with creative solutions. Unlike adults, children have an open pipeline to the seat of creativity: the right hemisphere of the brain. But when they start school, the “left brain”—the seat of logic—begins falling victim to the fears, rules, obligations and concerns of the adult world and, before long, imagination is in retreat.

What sets the creative person off from the rest of us is that he or she has somehow managed to hold onto a childlike curiosity and an unbounded sense of creative possibility. To help rekindle your own curiosity, start by widening your horizons—especially your reading horizons. Ray Bradbury, a prolific writer of science fiction, stuffs his mind with everything he can lay his hands on—essays, poetry, plays, lithographs, music. “You have to feed yourself information every day,” he says. “When I was a kid, I sneaked over to the grown-up section in the library. Now, to make sure I’m fully informed, I often go into the children’s section.”

Ask the right question. For months, a group of YMCA Indian Guides had planned a “father-and-son” weekend in the wilds, where they hoped to make plaster casts of animal tracks. When the weekend finally arrived, it poured rain, and no one could go out. Then one imaginative leader had an idea. Why not use the plaster to make casts of each father’s hand, along with that of his son. “It was one of the best things we ever did,” a YMCA official recalls. “It saved the weekend.”

The idea would never have developed if the leader who thought of it had stayed with the obvious question:”How can we make plaster casts in the rain?” They couldn’t, of course. The “right” question was: “How can we have fun with the plaster we’ve bought?”

Dr. Frederic Flach, New York psychiatrist and leading authority on creativity, says that restating the question can often be the first step toward discovering the solution. “Instead of asking, ‘Should I get a divorce?’” suggests Dr. Flach, “you might ask, ‘Does it make more sense to be on my own?’ Similarly, instead of wondering,’Should I quit my job?’ you might ask,’To what degree does the work I am doing reflect my basic interests?’”

Angelo M Biondi, executive director of the Creative Education Foundation, likes questions that begin, “In what ways might I…?” He recently offered advice to a friend in business. Head of a small company, the friend was debating whether or not to fire an unproductive assistant. A better question, Biondi suggested, might be: “In what ways might I improve this employee’s performance?” That led to questions about why the employee was having trouble; the employer soon discovered that his assistant had marital problems that were diverting him from his work. A family counsellor saved the marriage—and the man’s job.

Put ideas together. More often than not, creativity is the spark that’s struck from pairing two or more existing ideas. SES ASSOCIATES, a Cambridge, Mass., “think tank,” was asked by a major food manufacturer to find a better way to package potato chips. So SES associated two ideas: potato chips and wet leaves. Why leaves? Because the first question the SES creative types asked was:”What is the best packaging solution you ever saw?” Someone said the bagging of wet leaves. “Try to shove a load of dry leaves into a bag, and you have a tough time,” he explained. “You are packing air, just the way the potato-chip manufacturers do. But if the leaves are wet, you can pack a lot of them in.”

Good idea, the researchers thought, and they tried packing wet potato chips. But it didn’t work; when the chips dried in the package, they crumbled. That led to the development of a tougher chip that, when wet, could be pressed into a uniform shape. Today, this product is recognized by millions of Americans as the potato chips that come in a can instead of a bag.

William Gordon, president of SES, stresses that such creativity cannot happen without “the emotional willingness to risk failure.” In other words, even the craziest of ideas should be considered, since every truly original idea may look a little crazy at first. Thomas Edison, a man with 1093 American patents in his name, once confessed: “I’ll try anything—even Limburger cheese!”

Sleep on it. When faced with an intractable problem, try putting it completely out of your conscious mind; let it incubate. At the moment you least expect it, a creative solution may pop up.

In 1865, German chemist Friedrich Kekule fell asleep puzzling over the structure of the benzene molecule. Kekule dreamed of thousands of atoms dancing before his eyes, some forming patterns and twisting like snakes. Suddenly one snake grabbed its own tail. In a flash, Kekule awakened with the idea of a closed-chain structure of benzene—a brilliant scientific discovery.

Others have also hit on their best ideas while their mental engines were idling. It was said of Mozart, for example, that his music wrote itself while he traveled, strolled or dozed. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dennis Gabor says that, like Einstein before him, he gets his best ideas while shaving. Then there was seven-year-old Susie, whose problem was simply that the braided string belt had been pulled out of her pajama bottoms. How on earth, she wondered, can I ever thread it back through again? She put the problem out of conscious mind. A short time later, as she was getting an ice cube out of the freezer, an idea suddenly hit her. She could wet the belt, freeze it in a circle, then guide it through the pajama opening. It worked!

Practice. Like jogging or speaking a new language, using creative techniques may feel awkward until old habits have been unlearned. To help, try some of the following creative calisthenics. For example: Write three-word phrases beginning with each letter of the alphabet (”Buy better bargains” or “Tell tall tales”). Devise a new, witty definition for these words: a bore, a politician, an expert, a grapefruit, a revolution, hope, patience, lust. Make a list of five blue foods, or 15 ways to use a feather, or six new names for the United States of America. Or try this: think how it might feel to be, say, a stapler, or a Volkswagen, or a fish. Then write down what you think.

Most of all, develop and practice a “passion for living.” Pablo Picasso marveled at everything. “I look at flies, at flowers, at leaves and trees around me,” he said. “I let my mind drift at ease, just like a boat in the current. Sooner or later, it is caught by something.”

By being alert to what is around you, your mind and imagination can’t help but begin to stir in new, mysterious ways. “The larger the island of knowledge,” said the late clergyman- scholar, Ralph Sockman, “the longer the shoreline of mystery surrounding it.” And, somewhere behind that shoreline, pushing it out toward the horizon, is our power of creativity.

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