Why carsickness was the secret to my success

Leyland Austin Princess 1977 Sherburn Durham

Our 1977 Austin Princess

Many of us assume we are who we are just because that’s who we are. We’re often oblivious to the influences, small or large, which shape our character, beliefs and drives. We assume that we’re born with certain talents and lack others. We know what we like but really, we only like what we know. We think we think what we like, but it’s more likely that we just like what we think.

It was this question, of why am I who I am, that drove me to examine my life to see if I could see why I have embraced my creativity and imagination while some others have not. Why do I love to spend my time thinking, writing, making music, creating new things. Was it that I’m just more thoughtful that others? Is it that I’m just more inclined to invent new ideas in my head, to solve problems in interesting and unusual ways. Is it a natural born talent that I have that other’s lack, no matter how they try, they could never match my kind of creative life?

Of course not. There are a whole host of reasons why I like what I like and do what I do. I’ve explored my memory and found all manner of defining moments or exposures to certain stimuli. There were times when I had encouragement and times when I was told I was useless. All these pushes and pulls guided and shaped my self image. But I came upon a much more subtle and not very pleasant reason that I can award the real trophy for the most character and talent defining cause in my early life: carsickness.

That’s right. Puke. I must have spent more time feeling or being sick than most. Almost any car journey over 20 minutes could result in queasiness (or 5 minutes if in a friends Ford). Visiting relatives in Yorkshire was the big journey. From Bristol, Durham and then later Hampshire to Bradford and back, usually over a weekend. Between 2 and 5 hours in the back of my Dad’s Morris Marina (the worst), Austin Maxi, Princess (the best), Vauxhall Cavalier or Rover SD1.

My brother, immune to travel sickness would play with toys, read, do puzzles, play Fighting Fantasy books among other things. I could do none of those. I could only stare out of the front window, trying to keep very still and my eyes straight ahead. If I looked down for a second I would tumble into the reeling ugliness of that spinning griddliness of foreboding sick. My head would swoon and my sense of smell magnify by a thousand times. Sometimes opening the window for a rush of freezing cold air helped, but not much. My mouth squeezed itself full of saliva. If I dared open it to get my Dad to stop the car, I’d tumble out onto the long grass of the verge, hoping that the ensuing vomit wouldn’t come through my nose this time, or worse, sting the back of my eyes. If we couldn’t stop, there was a large iceceam tub to hand. Either way, I’d be spitting for some time the excess saliva, waiting for my head to stop spinning before getting back on the road and beginning again. If you’ve never had car sickness, it’s not like other sicknesses, like food poisoning, where afterwards you feel better. With travel sickness you feel sick for up to two hours after the journey whether you actually been sick or not. When we arrived at my Aunty or Grandma’s house it would be lunchtime, often fish and chips, sometimes from the then magical Harry Ramsden’s. All I could have was to try to ignore the smell and have a glass of lemonade.

So to avoid this hell I had the be very deliberate and determined to concentrate on looking out of the front (not having rear seatbelts help in this respect). Listening to music made it worse so I had to ask my parents to turn the radio off. I had to steal my mind on something to really concentrate on. I could recall in my minds eye every frame and intonation of voice from episode three of Doctor Who and the Destiny of the Daleks which had been on the previous Saturday night. I would make up my own stories in my mind, making them as solid and as memorable as possible since I wouldn’t be able to write any ideas down for quite a few hours. I would visualise Cyberman bases instead of buildings and Dalek saucers instead of clouds.

I had an imaginary friend who was a fox who ran alongside the car, jumping over obstacles, over bridges, through fields and under junctions. When we stopped at the Little Chef he’d either gone on ahead or was lagging behind so we never actually met. But once we were back on the road, he’d be there again.

My favourite game was the car game I invented I still play this one today. To begin, you pick a car from either the overtaking lane or the oncoming traffic lane, whichever has a reasonable flow of traffic. The game starts when you have chosen a car that you like, say a Jaguar XJS which has passed by. This is now your car and you count every car that passes by after it. If you don’t pick a replacement car by the 10th car (or higher number if the flow of traffic is faster), then you have to swap the Jaguar for whatever the 10th car is. The point of the game is to keep switching from great car to great car without having to lower your standards to some rubbish old Ford Escort or embarrassing Datsun.

If I kept my body still and my mind moving I could beat the sickness. I must have had thousands of hours of this sort of thinking. So when I’m in a situation today that I have to wait, I’ll never get bored. I’m always thinking. Always imagining. I can’t help it, I’ve had so much practice.

Perhaps we don’t have talents at all. Perhaps we just have quirks of our physical nature that in some weird un-calculated way forces us to behave in such a manner that may lead to some behaviour that is recognised as useful. I believe I can lay the blame, or the thanks, at an unusual cause. For my imagination, thank you, sick.

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The two types of thinking that we need to think about thinking

There are two modes of thinking that we switch between to be able to be creative and run our lives. The main one is critical thinking which most of us use most of the time to rationalise and run our lives. But there is another mode of thinking too that is quite different, equally as important but often overlooked…

Critical thinking
Critical thinking is what we were taught. It is instilled within our civilisation. It is the essence of the scientific method which as we know is to put up a theory and then attack it. If it still stands up then maybe we have something. That is the scientific method.

Critical thinking is great for our judicial system. Someone puts forward a hypothesis such as ‘we believe this man committed a crime’ and critical thinking takes over to test the hypothesis. The problem with critical thinking is that it needs a hypothesis before it can do anything. In science we need the initial theory before we can begin to examine it, attack it or design any experiments.

This is why many people can’t seem to come up with any ideas as any new thoughts are stifled by critical thinking. If they or anyone around them comes up with an idea has it immediately vetted, criticised and thrown out. This sort of behaviour destroys creativity. In a brainstorming meeting, the person who put forward the initial idea in that meeting may have been onto a winner if the idea had been explored and associations drawn from it rather than knocking it down. But we don’t nessesarily need others to stop us being creative, we’re critical of ourselves and filter thoughts through our critical thinking, therefore never gettig to the big idea. The most ridiculous and impractical suggestions during a creative ideas session are by far the most important.

We associate this type of thinking with the ‘left brain’ because many of its attributes are located in the left hemisphere. Critical thinking is also known as being sceptical or being a sceptic. Most of the time it is healthy to be a sceptic. It means you’re checking facts as you go along, evaluating your beliefs and are able to weigh things up to make accurate value judgements. (Don’t confuse critical thinking or sceptical thinking with cynical thinking. Being a cynic means that you assume the worst and expect failure. We have no time for cynics here.)

Possibility thinking

The other mode is possibility thinking or creative thinking. The vital difference between the two modes are that critical thinking asks, ‘is this true?’, while creative possibility thinking asks, ‘is this useful?’. Creative thinking is interested in possibilities, it looks for meaning and personal significance. It likes to tie facts together and give them context (that is what we call ‘story’). It dreams and imagines what could be rather than looking at what’s actually there. It is unfettered by reality, language or time. We associate this type of thinking with the ‘right brian’ because many of its attributes are located in the right hemisphere. Operating in this mode of thinking most of the time would be unproductive and dangerous. But when coupled with critical thinking in the right measure at the right time it becomes the powerhouse of our creativity.

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Never ever try to think of a great idea ever again

GolfIf I was to play golf, never having played it before, and made the statement, “If I’m going to play this game, I only want to get hole-in-ones'”. What would happen when I teed off?

If I was going to be a photographer, having just equipped myself with an expensive digital SLR camera and I made the statement, “I’m only going to take great photos.” How many photos would I take?

If I was going to train as a research scientist and made the statement, “I’m only going to engage in ground-breaking research.” What new discoveries would I make?

The answers are of course that the odds are stacked incredibly high against being successful in any of the three. I wouldn’t hit a hole-in-one. I’d take one or two photographs before realising that my photos were rubbish and I’d feel a massive sense of under-achievement in the laboratory as I worked on mundane run-of-the-mill tests.

In each of these examples you have to do things badly to start with and then you get better. It’s obvious. So why, when it comes to generating ideas do we expect and somehow think we’re capable, of having great ideas without having lots of not-so-great ideas first? It’s like trying for the hole-in-one, you’re basically relying on random chance – you’re not playing the game.

Never, ever, ever, ever try to think of a good or great idea ever again. Unless you want to waste time and fail, that is. We need to understand that to be creative and generate earth-shatteringly brilliant ideas we need to set off trying to think of IDEAS, not great ideas. There is a subtle difference. By trying to think of great ideas you are starting off with judgemental thinking. To know that you’ve just thought of a great idea means that you’re verifying, critisising and evaluating the idea as soon as it is formed. This means you’re still locked into critical thinking, which we know, doesn’t have access to your full potential. You’re cutting out the creative driver of the process.

It’s hard to cut out critical thinking. We’re programmed to think that way. This means we’ll find it very difficult to just think of ‘ideas’ instead of ‘great ideas’, postponing the evaluation till the brainstorming session is over. To get over this, the secret is to deliberately think of bad ideas. By bad ideas I mean really, really bad ones.

Think of your most pressing problem at the moment. Can you think of 21 stupid, bad, rubbish and surreal ways to solve the problem? Think of ways that could make the problem worse. The aim here is to deliberately be unconstructive. This will help keep judgement and analysis at bay and will also open up the mind to possibilities (giving your mind permission to ‘think out of the box’). Your critical thinking brain will eventually just give up, allowing right brain possibility thinking to take over and start making some really unusual connections. You’ll find this tough too. I don’t think you’ll be able to do it, you’ll be so locked into left brain critical thinking mode.Try to prove me wrong and list 21 really bad ideas. Some people censor their thoughts so much they won’t be able to even attempt this. Remember, I’m not asking you to actually DO them – just think of them.

Then go back over the list. Notice what further ideas are triggered from the bad ones. Perhaps by ‘inverting’ a bad idea it becomes an idea so wonderfully good that you would never have considered had you not freed yourself from critical thinking.

Keep thinking the impossible and the ridiculous. If you think only about sensible ideas and search only for the perfect idea then you’ll also fail to come up with anything new. The route to genius does not lie on the often travelled path. Keep deliberately thinking of stupid, preposterous and truly ridiculous ideas (and write them all down). These open up new routes for your mind to explore and find new answers.

See if you can do it.

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You don’t have to work here – but it helps

There’s often a preconception about creativity that to be creative you have to be some sort of Mr Claypole like court jester. Too many books on this topic seem to run with the premise from the author of ‘w-hey! I’m mad me!’ like that annoying nerdy irritant that manages to infiltrate everyone’s circle of friends.

Creativity is not about being an idiot. Creativity doesn’t require you to dress like a 1980s children’s television clown with a pair of comedy spectacles, silly hat and a large sponge hammer to bonk people on the head who are taking things too seriously. You don’t need a gunk tank or to give and receive foam-custard pies. There’s no need for that inane lunacy (unless you are a 1980s children’s tv presenter).

Being creative is a bit like being able to harness The Force from Star Wars. To use it properly and productively, you don’t and shouldn’t be too cocky and showy. The goodies (the Jedi) went around in simple, ordinary clothes. Their lightsabres were tucked away on their belts, out of sight, but ready if needed. They used their powers to help people and get the job done and not for cheap parlour tricks just to make them feel good. The baddies on the other hand were different. The Sith went into showing off in a big way. Darth Maul was such an egotist that he tattooed his whole body to make him look ‘really scary’. It was a bit obvious. He was mad and bad, a one trick pantomime pony with no subtlety at all. The same was true of Darth Vader. Ok, so he was a burns victim. I know quite a few serious burns victims. None of them decided to wear a black helmet in the shape of a skull. He wore his bad heart on his sleeve.

I have a motto that I’ve taken and twisted from that most annoying of office buffoon cliches. I don’t mean to present this as a clever joke, but to make a serious point:You don’t have to work here – but it helps.

That’s on my office wall. It’s a good a motto as any. The point being that to be creative you actually have to DO something. The book of Genesis doesn’t say ‘and God thought it might be a really good idea to let there be light and separate the land from the sea but decided to start the week with a few days off first’. Every act of creation involves a bit of work, some sort of action. That’s why we like a good creation myth like Genesis or the Big Bang Theory: things happen, things progress. If you know me you’ll know I like nothing better than to sit around making up jokes and ideas. But you’ll also notice that I always have a notebook. I’m always asking the question, ‘what can we do with that?’, ‘is it useful?’.

To be creative you are bound to be eccentric. You have to be. Eccentric means ‘not in the middle of the circle’. Being abnormal means not being the normal straight up and down at a right angle to the ground (eccentric and normal are geometry terms for circles and lines). We must be abnormal and eccentric with out creativity otherwise we wouldn’t be being creative. But we don’t have to be abnormal and eccentric fools. We just need to be ourselves.

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When creativity leadership goes wrong

When a hospital was set a target to reduce the number of patients waiting on trolleys before being transferred to beds, the very able and creative management team working in the wards were able to meet the target quite easily. What they did was to remove the wheels from the trolleys and re-classify them as beds. Another target was to reduce the number of patients in beds waiting in corridors before being moved into a ward. Again, the department was able to meet the target.

What they did was to re-name the corridor ‘Ward 4b’.

The final and most damning example of a target set and met by a hospital was when surgeons were instructed to increase the number of operations per day. They met the target by swapping the order of the operations they performed and did the quickest and easiest ones first. These operations were of course the least life threatening too. The delay of more critical (and more time consuming) operations meant that people died.

These examples show are real lack of creativity leadership. The way these targets were delivered but have been in such a way that lacked real understanding or shared vision about what the purpose of the targets actually were. The chances are that a highly qualified surgeon is probably doing a very good job within the time it takes to perform that job. They probably can’t do it any quicker, and probably shouldn’t. Setting such a target as ‘get more done’ is not only destructive and counter-productive as was shown, it was also totally ignorant of what processes are involved in the micro-management of the tasks the surgeon performs.

So if dictating ignorant targets is not the answer, what is? The answer is that a different kind of leadership is required. Creativity leadership is about facilitating the creativity of the experts to achieve a shared vision. In the case of the surgeons a more collective and holistic discussion should have taken place to find out where time savings could be made within procedures that still achieved the main overall goal of getting real people back to health and out of danger and not a production line. This is hard for most managers, especially those who have been promoted quickly without much training. It is so much harder to do things holistically successfully. It’s harder to build an abstract jigsaw of people, processes, time and resources. It’s much easier to bark orders and targets. But being able to see the big as-yet un-materialised picture and pull everything together to make it work better is what modern business needs. That’s what creativity leadership is.

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Creativity Leadership

What is a business leader? Often it’s the person who makes the final decision, perhaps the owner, chairperson, chief executive or senior manager Are these people creative? Should they be?

Being in a senior position in an organisation does, by its very nature, move a business leader away from the day-to-day ‘on the ground’ elements of that business. That’s why they employ managers to manage and workers to work. The downside of being in this type of leadership position is that the main source and use of creativity in the organisation appears to be completely out of the leaders hands and control. Having managers to run systems and workers to actually do the job is supposed to mean that leaders don’t get their hands dirty anymore, freeing them up to see the bigger picture.

This means that they are in no position to be able to apply innovation, to find new and better ways of doing things because they simply don’t have the details and facts on how the systems and process work on the micro scale.

This is why business leaders have to take a slightly different approach when it comes to unlocking creativity or increasing innovation in their organisations. The first thing they have to realise is that the most creative people in their business who are really in charge of innovation are not themselves. Instead it is the people who have all the data on how things work, all the people who are working inside the machinery of the business. It is so often micro-changes within, on the shop floor, that will make the big differences. It still needs someone who has the ability to take an overview of the whole system, but that someone must know all the facts, costs, timings and structure of that system. This is why it is so important to make sure that workers see the big picture and that line managers have the ability and confidence to notice where improvements can be made.

A business leader therefore takes on a new type of leadership role. They are not concerned with running systems, like a line manager does, or even managing those managers. A 21st century business leaders main role is to manage, or rather facilitate, the creativity of those managers and departments. The key to successful creativity leadership is the ability to foster an environment conducive to ideas, development and change in a structured and progressive way. This is the essence of creativity leadership.

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