Graphic. Centre circle "How to have great ideas". Smaller circle "Read, watch, listen broadly"

How to have great ideas: Strategy 2 – read, watch, and listen broadly

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Welcome back to the “How to have great ideas” series. My previous article covered the first strategy for having great ideas, which is to have lots of ideas. It’s worth reading that article first, to give you context for the second strategy: to read, watch, and listen broadly.

Very few of us read, watch, and listen broadly

The internet was supposed to herald the dawn of a new age, where, by having access to all the information that has ever existed, we would become more insightful, understanding and connected.

As anyone who has spent even a moment on the internet known, that vision hasn’t (yet) come to pass!

Instead of being better-informed, more widely-read and having a deeper understanding of the world and our global family, thanks to human nature and algorithms, we’ve found ourselves siphoned off into echo chambers. We influence and are influenced by groupthink, and we read, see and hear viewpoints that are similar to our own.

And perhaps worst of all, we experience the ‘backfire effect’, where the more we encounter evidence that our beliefs are wrong, the more tightly we cling to those beliefs.

Groupthink can develop when we don't read, watch and listen broadly. (image sadly uncredited)

Most of us don’t read, watch, and listen broadly, but rather, narrowly. Add in common errors in thinking (like confirmation bias and the availability heuristic), and we mistakenly believe we are well-informed and our opinions and beliefs well-founded, when the opposite is more likely the case.

"So what?", I hear you ask

There’s nothing wrong with staying in our echo chambers, engaging in groupthink, and clinging ever more tightly to our beliefs… that is, unless we want to make any kind of change or improvement to our lives and/or the wider world.

A quote famously misattributed to Einstein tells us “You can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that created it”. The way I see it, our “default thinking” is what got us to where we are. And where we are might be perfectly acceptable right now. But even if where we are right now is pretty good, most people want to go further and do more. So, we have to expand our thinking. That starts with expanding what we feed into our mind. And that means broadening our information inputs.

What happens if I read, watch, and listen broadly?

You’ll recall that the first strategy for having great ideas is to have lots of ideas. It’s easier to generate ideas when we’ve got lots of different information to work with. There are plenty of benefits to reading, watching and listening broadly. Doing so will:

  • challenge our thinking
  • help us see information or perspectives that we haven’t considered
  • show us the weaknesses in our default thinking
  • give us a fresh perspective
  • support the generation of greater numbers of, and more diverse, ideas (which, as I wrote in Strategy 1, gives us a better chance of developing great ideas)
  • give our brains more to work with in order to make the kind of conceptual leaps I’ll be talking about in Strategy 3
A bird's eye view of a desk, showing a hand writing in a notebook, with a person's face on the computer monitor
There's a broad range of excellent content available online - why not hunt some out today? (image credit: Pexels)

Switching to broader inputs

First, let’s acknowledge that this is going to feel uncomfortable. We’re used to reading, watching and listening to the same old, same old. Opening up to new sources and types of information will feel unfamiliar. And in some cases, it will feel downright wrong.

It can also be tiring. When our brains work on new concepts and information, it takes a lot more energy than being reminded of what we already know to be “true”. Don’t be surprised if you need to take more frequent breaks when working with new sources of information and ideas.

I know that it sounds rather off-putting! The good news is that if we can find a way to sit with the discomfort as we broaden our inputs, we’re well on our way to unleashing a goldmine of ideas.

Take in information and viewpoints you disagree with

We each have a unique set of preferences for politics, spirituality, law and order, ethics etc. We naturally seek out and absorb information and viewpoints that align with our own. That’s because every time we come across something aligned with our beliefs, we get a “hit” of dopamine, the reward chemical. Our brain loves dopamine, so it always wants another hit. That means we’ll seek out the same thing over and over again.

But doing that keeps us stuck in our default thinking. So, how can we take in information and viewpoints we disagree with? If we:

  • lean to the right politically, we can look for something created by someone left-leaning
  • value the intuitive approach above all things, we can seek out something that comes from the rational perspective
  • believe facts and figures tell the whole story, we can get hold of something qualitative and narrative-driven

Absorb your information through unfamiliar avenues

We humans have a variety of learning styles or preferences, which influence how we like to absorb information. The four primary styles are:

  1. Visual (seeing)
  2. Auditory (hearing)
  3. Kinesthetic (moving/doing)
  4. Reading/writing

Most people prefer one or two of these styles. And we tend to select learning situations that favour our preferred styles. While this usually speeds up our learning, it can reduce the diversity of the inputs we use.

There are so many options for finding new ways to absorb information. For example:

A man walking in a park at sunset, wearing earphones
Why not try listening to an audiobook or podcast while walking? (image credit: Pexels)

Instead of:

  • Books
  • Audiobooks
  • Passively receiving (reading, watching, listening)
  • Current topics
  • Non-fiction
  • Advanced theory
  • Self-directed learning

We can:

  • Watch videos
  • Read websites
  • Engage actively (take notes, draw a mind map, build a model, act it out)
  • Soak in some history
  • Pick up some fiction
  • Try stuff pitched at kids
  • Sign up for an online course*

* there are lots of free or low-cost Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hosted on platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy or Canvas)

What happens to our thinking when we read, watch, and listen broadly?

Getting information from varied sources that challenges our default thinking has many positives. Not only does it help us generate lots of ideas, but it also improves the quality of our thinking. And that will help us to generate great ideas. It does this in several ways.

Lateral and divergent thinking

Most of the great “thinkers” of history did not specialise in only one discipline. They typically had reasonable knowledge of multiple areas combined with a deep specialisation in one or two areas. This is known as “T-shaped” knowledge (the top of the “T” indicates the broad knowledge, the stem relates to the depth of knowledge in a few areas). Their “T-shaped” knowledge helped them engage in lateral and divergent thinking. They made connections between what might seem like completely separate bodies of knowledge, instead of being railroaded into the default thinking of any particular group or discipline.

There is some debate over whether lateral and divergent thinking are separate approaches, or different names for the same thing. The definitions for both include the concepts of moving away from our default thinking, and incorporating new perspectives and possibilities. Having broad knowledge in a variety of subjects helps us think laterally/divergently, creating the opportunity for creative thinking.

Pattern and deviation recognition

As I often say, our brains are lazy! They do all sorts of things to conserve energy, and one of those these is to identify patterns. When our brain registers a pattern, it sets an expectation about how the world works. And as long as the pattern holds, our brain ignores the pattern, because it knows what to expect. We don’t even realise we’re doing it.

A simple example is how greetings work between people. When we say “Hi, how are you?”, our brain is primed to expect a certain range of responses. If the other person uses one of those responses, we carry on as usual. But if they said “Tennis ball”, you’d stop short in surprise. That’s a deviation from the pattern, and your brain goes onto high alert.

When we absorb information from a range of sources, our brains will subconsciously start to pick up patterns that exist in diverse bodies of knowledge and thinking. That also helps us identify when deviations or exceptions occur. And we can use both pattern recognition and deviation recognition to help us generate more ideas.

Flexible thinking

There is a cognitive bias known as functional fixedness. It means that once we know the function of an item, we zero in on that function to the expense of other possibilities. If we need nail something together, we look for a hammer, because that’s what we use for nails. But what if we don’t have a hammer? It might take a while before we realise we could use a brick, a wrench, or something else hard enough and robust enough to “hammer” the nail.

When we read, watch and listen broadly, we see concepts, principles, rules and tools (whether physical or mental) applied in a variety of situations. This helps expand the way we think about solving problems. We take a solution that works in a completely different context, and consider how it might be tweaked for our context. Examples include using game theory to motivate peole to complete tasks (e.g. the Habitica app), or using epidemiological theory to drive improvements in wellbeing.

Coupled with lateral and divergent thinking, flexible thinking helps us generate innovative ideas. But a note of caution: as Daniel Pink discusses in his excellent book Drive, there is evidence that incentivising or rewarding people (or ourselves) for producing novel and innovative ideas, especially using flexible thinking, is likely to decrease the number and variety of ideas we have. It also slows down the generation of the ideas we do come up with.

Progress check

So far, we’ve covered two strategies:

  1. Have lots of ideas
  2. Read, watch, and listen broadly (this article)

If you’d like to read up on the third strategy, jump over to the series page, or scroll down to the bottom of the page to browse my recent articles.

Graphic. The word "Progress" in blue, with arrows pointing up, ranging from short green arrow on left to tall red arrow on right.

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