Do you feel guilty pursuing multiple ideas or projects at once?
What about having 3–5 unfinished books on your shelf?
When I was younger, I thought it was unproductive to read a new book while my current one was unfinished.
It was like needing to focus on one book was an unspoken law!
Suppose we have a goal and try focusing on it.
And whenever our curiosity ventures elsewhere, we feel guilty.
Or if we don’t finish our current book or project, we think it’s unproductive or bad.
This actually suffocates your creative process, holding you back from developing great content and innovative ideas.
Pursuing Multiple Ideas Is Constructive For The Creative Process
I once posted a question in a Facebook Group about meta-learning…
“Anybody else have 3–5 unfinished books they’re reading??”
I was genuinely curious since I’m usually cycling between 3–5 books at any given time.
I got lots of responses. And I was surprised at how many people were doing the same thing.
One response caught my attention:
M.C.: “Yes…I have over 10 books, speeches, courses, written articles, recordings, plans…All waiting for me to piece the puzzle as I go. It’s a sign of how much I don’t know but also how much I’m hungry to learn based on curiosity. Having many books on the go is a good sign.”
After reading their comment, an interesting analogy popped into my head. So I responded…
Me: “Reminds me of a simultaneous exhibition where someone’s playing multiple chess opponents at once.”
Yeah, maybe I’ve recently watched both Searching For Bobby Fischer and The Queen’s Gambit.
Anyone doing a simultaneous exhibition is a genius chess player. This feat is usually only accomplished by chess Grandmasters.
Since many people feel guilty when pursuing multiple ideas simultaneously, this analogy is a much more uplifting picture. You’re solving ongoing puzzles.
This triggered a conversation in the group around it. And I thought it’d be valuable to dive a bit deeper into the topic.
I’ve learned that a lot of creative geniuses work this way. They’ll explore a handful of ideas at once. Then they’ll select the top ideas and drill down even further.
Thomas Edison is a good example.
He’s left us over 5 million journal pages. And researchers have spent a crazy amount of time studying them, dissecting how he worked and developed his ideas.
Specifically — when looking at Edison’s telephone sketches — a team of researchers charted what ideas he was working on, what months he was experimenting with them, and when he decided to select and investigate winning ideas.
They found that Edison was exploring different ideas at the same time before selecting ONE to investigate and pursue in more detail.
Cognitive Psychologist Howard Gruber called this a “network of enterprise,” which he believed was central to the creative process.
The main idea is that when you pursue parallel ideas and weave them together, it’s constructive to the creative process.
Each part informs the purpose of the whole, leading to innovative ideas.
Gruber makes this point when observing Darwin’s creative process, saying: “Darwin’s work was divided into a number of separate enterprises, each with a life of its own. This type of organization has several constructive functions. It permits the thinker to change his ideas in one domain with scrapping everything else he or she believes and it provides a setting for chancy interactions.”
I feel less guilty now!
But This Only Works For Geniuses, Right?
I’ve heard a couple of valid objections to this idea.
One of them being, “But doesn’t this only work for geniuses?”
I understand where this person is coming from.
It can seem that geniuses are born with magical abilities. Though their DNA predisposition may play a role, it’s only a piece of the equation.
Studying how ideas develop from creative geniuses shows us reality. Their innovations don’t just appear out of thin air.
They usually have a database of knowledge. And this is where the innovative idea emerges from. Edison famously performed thousands of experiments before discovering innovative solutions.
“But wait… shouldn’t I be focusing on one thing? It seems like I’ll be scatter-brained and won’t get anything done!”
On the surface, this idea seems to fly in the face of what we’re all told.
We’re told to focus. Don’t stray from the path. Hustle.
True, focusing is essential.
But the idea of “focusing on one thing” — in my opinion — is excellent advice for someone who is untethered.
And by this, I mean someone who isn’t clear on what their North Star is.
Tether Your Ideas To A North Star
Sometimes this ability to explore other options is necessary for the creative process.
This is why I love the “North Star” analogy.
If you’re on a sea voyage, you’re clear in your direction. The North Star is guiding you.
You’ll still visit various ports, explore nearby villages, and perhaps even go on mini-adventures along the way.
If you go into a nearby village, you may discover that a family lost their son. Perhaps he’s wandered into the forest, and you decide to join the search party to recover him.
Does this mini-adventure mean you’re giving up on your mission? I don’t think so.
Also, what if you learn something valuable when you join the search party? Knowledge and experiences that can be used to help you on your voyage in the future.
There’s nothing wrong with exploring and pursuing different ideas along the way.
The key is to stay tethered to your North Star.
When developing your content, don’t worry if you hit a wall. It happens.
Use that as an opportunity to explore another idea that’s tethered to your “north star.”
You may find a puzzle piece that helps you solve the entire problem.
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