Why You Need to Practice Divergent Thinking
Now is the time for divergent thinking.
Diverge: Imagine and Generate New Ideas
As I wrote in The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative, No Matter Where You Work, “divergent thinking helps us generate many new ideas, imagine, be original, ask questions to spot problems, look for patterns, make unexpected connections, imagine, and see things from a variety of perspectives.”
Divergent thinking is ideational or visionary in nature. It involves rigorous gymnastics of the mind that lead to unexpected solutions. Divergent thinking spurs our thoughts beyond what exists, opening the door of thought to consider new possibilities.
Converge: Analyze Ideas and Form Solutions
Convergent thinking complements divergent thinking. We can take all the ideas and connections generated during divergence and probe them. Convergent thinking includes judgment. We weigh the options within a fixed set of information. We consider our particular situation, look at our goals and objectives, analyze the information before us, and decide what to do under the circumstances.
Most of us are well-practiced in convergent thinking. Much of school, especially with the growth of standardized tests, trains us almost exclusively in convergent thinking. As the use of these tests has increased and become more pressurized, teachers have adjusted their teaching styles to match them. Districts buy scripted curricula to align with test content and many teachers are required to read straight from lesson plans without diverging. Even more than before, convergent thinking dominates in our classrooms. Recent studies show that this is happening as early as preschool! Suffice it to say that we are steeped in convergent thinking from a very young age. Even so, we can still get better at using it as divergent thinking’s partner.
To have true creativity—the most robust form of thinking—we must have both divergent thinking and convergent thinking. Some people are more inclined toward divergent thinking and others prefer convergent. This is a good thing, because, as I’ve said, we need both. We need people who are passionate about pushing past the current reality to find new possibilities and we also need people who are passionate about working through analytical details to craft solid solutions.
The problem is that convergence is an almost irresistible force that tends to dominate our lives and the world.
Don’t Let Convergence Take Over Your World
Convergent thinking in and of itself isn’t a bad thing of course. As mentioned, it’s divergent thinking’s essential partner to achieve the truly robust cognition1 that is creativity. But when divergent thinking is compromised and convergence takes over, decline is imminent.
One definition of converge is: to gradually change so as to become similar or develop something in common. As humans, our innate need to belong makes us more apt to take on a convergence mindset. This is true in all microcosms of society, from families to schools, to teams and businesses. The culture of the group puts pressure on the uniqueness of the individual.
Convergence is how traditions develop, how groups find cohesiveness, and how some people start to resemble their dogs. (There’s probably a much more scientific explanation for the last one!) But think about it. If we all continue to change toward one particular point of sameness, all of sudden we morph together in one giant blob of thought and action.
When we are no longer able to think for ourselves because we are so intertwined with the group, we lose the ability to find new solutions. The core of so many problems in the world is a lack of divergent thinking, a lack of considering the new possibilities that will get us out of ruts.
Balance Your Thinking to Be More Creative
When convergence takes over, it kills off divergence little by little until we find ourselves out of balance from a thinking standpoint. At work, this manifests as apathy and dissatisfaction. When we set out to improve our creativity we realign our balance; using both divergent and convergent thinking is natural for human beings. Balanced thinking balances individuals and they, in turn, nourish ecosystems away from decay and toward possibility.
3 Ways to Get Better at Divergent Thinking
We’re all pretty darn good at convergent thinking. But our divergent thinking tends to decrease over time. Here are three tips from The Non-Obvious Guide to Being More Creative, No Matter Where You Work to help you develop your divergent thinking.
1. Grow Your Thinking Flexibility: Minimize Trash
Lauren Singer has rethought her entire lifestyle so that her full year’s worth of trash can be contained in one small mason jar. And yes, ladies, that means she’s even found an alternative to those fun monthly feminine products.
What are five non-obvious things you can do today to reduce your own trash? Check out Singer’s Trash is For Tossers website or her Instagram feed of the same name for inspiration. Even if she comes up with the ideas, it still takes flexibility for you to use them.
2. Free Your Thinking: Do Things Differently
Develop your freedom by doing things differently. What are three things that your organization does now because “we’ve always done it this way”? Choose one and think up and try an alternate approach.
3. Expand Your Thinking: Respond Like an Improv Actor
Imagine if, in the middle of an improv scene, one actor told the other, “You weren’t supposed to say that!” or “Don’t use that line!” The improv actor’s secret success tool is staying in a mentality of “Yes, and . . .” She has to say yes to the ridiculous and go with it to finish out the scene well. Today, practice responding to people’s ideas with, “Yes, and . . . “ Repeat tomorrow.
Kathryn Haydon helps you maximize your creative strengths so you can do your best work. Through keynotes, workshops, and consulting, she trains individuals, leaders, and teams to find the unique spark that leads to deep engagement and productivity.