Einstein was a smart, but the world is full of smart people. What was different about Einstein that allowed him to come up with the theory of relativity? Simple. Einstein was able to take a leap of imagination. At the time, everyone believed that time was constant. If you and I synchronize our watches and I wait on the ground while you take off and fly on a very fast space ship, it was assumed that when you came back our watches would still match. It was such a fundamental concept that no one even bothered to question it.
However, Einstein realized that something didn’t quite seem right. The basis of his uneasiness with the modern theories came when he was 16 years old and began to wonder, “what would a beam of light look like if you were traveling along with it at the speed of light?” This led to other questions. “If you are on a train going the speed of light and shine a flashlight backwards, would anyone be able to see it behind you?” “If you shine the light forward from the train, would anyone see it in front of you?” “If the light was directed in front of a train traveling at 2 times the speed of light, we should be able to observe some light traveling faster than other light on earth, but that does not seem to be the case.”
So if the speed of light didn’t change, it must be fixed. But this introduces another problem. Lets say you are on an elevator that moves up and down very rapidly. You have a mirror on either side and “bounce” a beam of light back and forth and the elevator moves up and down. To you, riding in the elevator, the light seems to be traveling the distance across the elevator. However, to someone outside looking in, the light is traveling diagonally as the elevator moves up. So when measured from the outside, the light is traveling a longer distance in same amount of time than the light measured from the inside relative to the rest of the elevator.
Questions like this kept Einstein puzzled and most likely confused his friends. One day, he thought, “If the speed of light is constant, what else can change? What about time?” And that was the leap of imagination that set Einstein apart. It probably seems simple now, but it was a huge step forward and a fairly unintuitive conclusion.
Einstein was able to come up with an idea that was unencumbered by traditional knowledge, common sense and day to day experience. This was truly a leap and required a great imagination. In many ways it relied on ignoring information rather than simply acquiring more data.
Many break throughs both small and large are the result of similar leaps of imagination. This is often what people refer to as creativity–the ability to think about a problem from a completely different perspective in order to find a solution that would be difficult or impossible to achieve in a step by step fashion.
So how can you make leaps of imagination to solve problems? Obviously it isn’t easy, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances.
Write down your assumptions
This is a lot harder than it sounds. The assumption that Einstein finally questioned was something so basic that it wouldn’t have even made sense to list as an assumption. Listing your assumptions can help you recognize the constraints that you are placing on your thought processes.
Pretend you are someone else
This may sound silly, but pretending to be someone else can help force your mind to approach the problem from a different point of view and help you avoid getting stuck in a single channel of thinking.
Consider the opposite goal
Lets say you are trying to figure out a way to increase sales at your company. Instead of thinking of ways to increase sales, consider what you could do to reduce sales. This lets you better identify the variables that are associated with your end goal. Not every idea is going to be effective, but this process can help you find ideas that you’d overlook when approaching the problem from normal direction.
Make the problem tactile
Getting the problem into a form where you can touch and feel it is a powerful way to develop new ideas and new approaches. For example, you might reduce the problem to something that can fit on note cards, you might build a small model, etc. Anything you can do to let you look at the problem from a different point of view will increase your chances of having a leap of imagination to solve the problem in a novel way. Getting the problem into a form where you can touch and feel it lets your brain approach it in a physical spatial sense and can suggest solutions, analogies and approaches that will be difficult to come up with when it remains abstract.
Visualize in a different way
Can you graph the problem? Can you overlay it on other information that will help you spot trends? Can you colorize the data in ways that will reveal patterns and similarities? Giving your brain a new way to look at a problem is often the best way to avoid a rut and generate new ideas.
Being smart is good, but real geniuses know how to use leaps of imagination to generate creative solutions to problems. It isn’t an easy thing and there aren’t really any short cuts, but being aware of what you are trying to achieve can help you take steps to generate creative ideas and avoid getting bogged down with preconceived ideas and faulty assumptions.