The Biggest Mental Barrier Blocking More Creative Thinking

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This is an excerpt from my weekly newsletter exploring the use of intuition at work. What does it take to trust our own creative abilities instead of yet another "best practice"? If you're bothered by commodity work, join the weekly journey here.

Last week, we explored a question: What is our "context"? We can use the details of our own situation to set up a sort of funnel, through which we can find clarity from confusion. So what's that funnel made of? We talked about the three distinct parts to your context, and why they're so crucial to understand if the goal is trusting our intuition.

If you missed that, go back and read it here. Today, as promised last time, we're knocking down a mental barrier in order to better investigate our context to find answers and ideas.

Now, admittedly, I wrote something last week that could be in the running for this year's Most Obvious Written Statement Award -- a glorious night where I dress my dog in a tux and hand myself a bottle of bourbon while a string quartet plays me out of my apartment. (#tradition)

Here's what I wrote: 

No two [situations] are exactly the same.

That bourbon is as good as mine! Because, uh, YEAH, no kidding. Every situation is at least sliiiiightly different than the rest. Duh. (Do we still say "duh"? I don't care. That statement was so obvious, I'm bringing it back just this once.)

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My point was, those sliiiight differences actually make ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Unfortunately, we have this mental barrier that's been built up over time that must come down before we can really see our situation as unique and find our answers within that uniqueness.

The problem isn't that we believe our context is identical to others. The problem is how we locate the differences. So let's first smash down that wall blocking our view. That wall is made up of two issues: We only notice differences that are OBVIOUS ... and we only point to differences as EXCUSES.

We're getting too theoretical though. Here's what I mean...

The Mental Barrier: Noticing differences that are OBVIOUS and using them as EXCUSES.

We rather easily point to our situation is different when those differences are superficial. We're shallow in our understanding of what makes our context unique.

My friend Carla Johnson calls this “Brand Detachment Disorder.” As a speaker, I'm hyper sensitive to this disorder (which we all have). If I stand on a stage and present a bunch of B2C examples to a room full of B2B brands, well, I run the risk of people's BDO kicking in and them saying, "But we're in B2B. That's different than B2C."

Yes. Understood. Citing examples that are B2B versus B2C, or old versus new, or large brands instead of small businesses -- all of these are obvious, superficial-layer things that we notice and say, "But my context is different."

This type of disassociation happens with all three pieces of our context -- pieces we established in the newsletter last week:

  • YOU: When comparing our work to other people we admire, we we think, “...but I'M not HER.” 
  • CUSTOMERS: When watching businesses thrive in different industries or stages of growth, we say, “…but OUR customers/clients aren’t like THEIRS.”
  • RESOURCES: When given lessons from outlier success stories, like the Apples of the world, we respond, “...but OUR budget …but OUR team …but OUR numbers…”

We do this quickly and confidently because the other thing is obviouslydifferent than our version of that thing. We’d much prefer that a speaker, for example, share case studies that more closely match our own. Because their situation is "just like ours."

But, of course, it’s not. Some other company that seems similar to you still has a unique context compared to your own. They could be a direct competitor who poached half your team and set up shop just down the street. EVERY context is different from others. The problem, however, is that the differences aren't always so obvious. But if we spend more time finding those subtle differences, we can use them as a kind of filter through which we can more quickly vet all that information out there, from best practices to new ideas. The less obvious difference might be THE difference between being average and exceptional.

I'm reminded of the story of Mike Brown, founder of Death Wish Coffee. 

In the episode “Best Practices,” he studied his competitors and talked to a bunch of experts to try and turn his struggling business around. His situation looked just like others … on the surface. But when he dug deeper and hunted for the less obvious differences — differences in himself, his customers, and his resources — he started making better decisions, faster. He found clarity by trusting his intuition, and he only trusted it because he knew his context.

To cite one example -- his customers -- Mike realized that most coffee shops sell to people who enjoy sitting down and sipping artisanal coffee. But Mike's customers were mostly transactional in how they drank their cups. They were truck drivers, construction workers, entrepreneurs, and other hard-chargers. This one small realization radically changed the course of his business, as Mike began to use a type of coffee that other shops would never, ever touch. Today, he runs a thriving coffee empire! (You can find his story here.)

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So, yeah, from the outside looking in, it's crazy what Mike decided to do -- because the differences aren't so obvious. But then you understand Mike's context and think, "Huh! That actually seems pretty logical."

So that’s the first problem with our understanding of "context.” We know ours is different from others, but we stop at the obvious stuff. We fail to capitalize on the less overt differences in our work.

The next problem is that we typically only find these differences when we’re being negative. We use them as excuses.

We say, "But I’m not her. But our customers or bosses are different. But our budget. But our team. But our numbers."

What if we turned each but into an and?

What if we stopped viewing the details of our own situation as limitations and instead viewed them as assets? 

When we say, “Yeah, BUT our situation is different,” we’re making excuses. We’re pointing out reasons we can’t do something. Okay, that’s fine. We’ve identified the truth: Our situation is different. And because of those differences, we can now do ... what?

“She succeeded this way, AND I’m not her. I’m funnier! I work in a boring industry in need of some fresh air! What if I used that to my advantage?"

“They thrive in that industry doing things like THAT, AND my customers are like THIS. They respect the art less. They drink coffee as a transaction. What if I combined my insights with things I saw in other industries?” 

“They have unlimited resources, AND I don’t. I can’t hire writers. I can’t build a huge blog. What clever new ideas can I try?"

When we’re being negative, it’s all we can do stop repeating the same excuse: “BUT! BUT! BUT!” 

And to that I say: YES! They want us to follow their best practice. They want us to put the work on repeat. BUT ... our context is different in ways they can't possibly understand as well as we can.

AND ... that’s how we'll find our answers.

Posted on October 29, 2017 and filed under IDEAS.