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Distraction: It’s How You Get Stuff Done!

“Ignore it” is not typical advice for a problem. Yet the best approach, sometimes, to a challenge or stumbling block is not to tackle it head on. Rather, you should address the issue obliquely or, even better, ignore it. As the author, Hanif Kureishi, observes in this New York Times article, The Art of Distraction, “If you’re writing and you get stuck, and you then make tea, while waiting for the kettle to boil the chances are good ideas will occur to you.

Surprisingly, this is not embraced in commercial enterprises that proclaim they nurture environments of innovation. In a commercial world where businesses are mechanistically structured, approaches either to problem solving or to innovation are often placed in a straightjacket of rigid processes, mandated outcomes and constricted operational silos. Such a controlled environment precludes the potential for unpredictable creativity. As Kureishi counters, “Some interruptions are worth having if they create a space for something to work in the fertile unconscious.

If, as Kureishi observes, following “a distraction requires independence and disobedience,” this environment is going to be intimidating to the typical business. Yet not to permit this culture is to stymie random potential. Environments that are authentically innovative acknowledge the example of MIT’s “Magical Incubator,” Building 20. “What we learned from Building 20’s success,said Professor William J. Mitchell, Dean of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, “was that we would need to provide modern services and technology without being rigid or constraining.” Over the course of its long history Building 20 housed a range of laboratories involved in some of the most important and ground-breaking developments of its time in science and technology. Whereas businesses profess the aim of creating value, too often they act to create conformity and constraint.

Communities, systems and environments that allow for the natural workings of the fertile unconscious will produce spontaneous imaginative breakthroughs. The point is perhaps well illustrated by Eva Zeisel and her creation of organic forms. When Susan Szenasy asked Zeisel about her attraction to such graceful, natural forms, Zeisel “lifted her generous and expressive hands and outlined a square in the air. Then she asked [Szenasy], ‘Have you ever seen nature create this shape?’

Inspiration, insight and innovation spring abundantly from happenstance that is not coerced by commercial formulae. We should embrace the ambiguity and opportunity that is inherent in the normal human experience, and cultivate the welcome we offer to the pleasures and potential in distraction.

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  1. Pingback: Lessons from the YP Summit | squishtalks

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