Disequilibrium often sets in at critical shifts in our lives and careers. I felt it for the first time when I switched from being an architect to being an “experience designer” at IDEO. I tried to explain to my dad, also an architect, that I was still a designer and described to him a new experience design project I was working on. He asked, “But where is the building?” And I was like, “There is no building …” And he said, “But you’re an architect … you spent eight years earning your architectural degree ....” That made me question everything I knew and if I knew anything at all.
What I didn’t realize then was that being in the fog of disequilibrium is essential. Not knowing is essential for curiosity, which is essential for learning, which is essential for insights, which is essential for vision. If we avoid the fog or pretend it doesn’t exist, we go down the path of experienced narrow-mindedness: I’ll just ignore this and stay on my path, because that’s what worked for me in the past. It’s like the cartoon of two people pushing a cart with square wheels, while a third person attempts to offer them a pair of new, shiny round wheels. “No thanks, we’re too busy!” one of the cart-pushers shouts as they continue on their way. Business school case studies are full of extinct companies who did just that.
The inner fog is something that we must learn to accept as a necessary phase on our journey as creative leaders. To sit with that uncomfortable destabilization and come up with a new way forward. Those who face the fog—in some of the ways I suggest below—can envision the future more clearly than those who’ve never wandered into it all.
Inner fog is inherently uncomfortable. When I’m in it, I want to get out of it as quickly as possible. I want balance. I want my prior knowledge and experience to fit with this new situation. But when we fight the fog with only the skills and experiences we already have—which may just be too narrow to solve a new problem—we run the risk of driving ourselves deeper into the fog, and into something called “cognitive entrenchment.” It’s like driving when you can’t see and ending up in a worse situation off the side of the road.
Here’s my advice: Don’t force it. When you’re in the fog, it’s just not possible to make the problem recede simply by staring really, really hard at it. You need to get distracted instead.
When have you had your greatest moments of lucidity, those brilliant “aha” realizations? It probably wasn’t when you were intensely focused, but rather when your mind was at ease, when you were doing something completely unrelated to your work, right? That’s because, studies find that while “conscious thought is better at making linear, analytic decisions … unconscious thought is especially effective at solving complex problems.”1
That helps explain why so many renowned scientists seem to dabble in the creative arts. Isaac Newton was a painter. Galileo was a poet. Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Nobel Laureate who was both the father of neuroscience in Spain and an accomplished and prolific illustrator, was convinced that while many presume that scientists with creative passions are “scattering and dissipating their energies,” they’re actually “channeling and strengthening them.”2 This holds true today: A recent in-depth study of scientists and engineers led to the insight that other activities interrupted a more obvious path toward a solution—opening the door for a newer, less obvious, and possibly better one.3
When in a fog, staring at the problem won’t will the fog away. But sometimes, if you shift your attention to something else, the fog might begin to dissipate while you’re distracted.
Make others successful
When I was at IDEO, we had this little book we’d carry around (aptly titled the Little Book of IDEO) full of the company’s values. “Make others successful,” was listed there—something I believe that goes beyond just IDEO’s culture and is fundamental to the creative practice. Helping others can create an exchange that is beneficial to both you and the recipient. The more you help others, the more you encounter different types of problems. The more problems you encounter, the more connections you see. And the more connections you see, the easier it is to find those connections in novel situations. This is the essence of creativity.
But it flies in the face of some widely accepted ideas. Many of us think we have to be totally clear ourselves before we can help others in the fog. Make sure your oxygen mask is on before assisting others. But I’ve found that helping someone else to see more clearly can help me see more clearly—fueling new insights and breakthroughs. Sometimes we have to help others before we can help ourselves.
Let me share an example from the work I did with the Mayo Clinic when they were still at the early stages of a patient-centered transformation. We could have started that project by doing a comprehensive, inward-looking exercise—focusing on their surgeons, their execs, and how their organization worked. Instead, we encouraged Mayo Clinic leaders to share insights with several other companies in very different industries, ranging from finance to luxury. By lending their perspective to other organizations, the Mayo Clinic created the conditions for a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. Rather than focus on themselves, these leaders helped others identify and solve problems that they soon realized they also had in common. This shift in perspective helped the team get to very tangible, useful breakthroughs in their own transformation.
As humans, we are natural pattern recognizers. We can’t help it. By helping others navigate challenges, you’ll unearth patterns, solutions, and techniques that will also fuel your own insights and breakthroughs.
Dream the future, don’t plan it
When caught in a fog, it’s a natural instinct for achievement-minded people to grope wildly around for something concrete to hold onto, or to plan toward. However, planning requires some level of known conditions and known objectives—and that’s just something you may not have. In those situations, planning is truly an empty exercise. You’re doing it because you feel the need to, but not because it’s what will unlock you.
When you’re in a fog, one of the best things you can do is to dream the future, but not plan it. That’s the process that “world builders” use. At first, “world building” was a storytelling technique that science fiction and fantasy authors used to construct their super rich and speculative settings. Think Minority Report or Harry Potter or Game of Thrones.
Tech companies now use this process to create forward-looking fiction to generate ideas and new intellectual property for the future. Lots of modern products and technological innovations, from cellphones and e-readers to flying cars and 3D printers were inspired by fictitious worlds. (Famously, Jeff Bezos’ product design team built the Kindle to spec from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age.) The idea is that when building these rich speculative worlds, you first describe what that world looks like with as much fidelity and detail as possible. Then, if that fantasy is compelling enough, you have more conviction and motivation to figure out how to make it happen through planning and execution.
That’s basically what I did last year when, in the deepest depths of my fog, I took some time to unplug from everything immediately work-related. I started making stuff with my kids, and got sufficiently distracted from the day-to-day. That gave me sufficient time and space to start imagining the most desirable future state of Google Search. I asked myself what I wanted to see and how it would feel—not where I’d start or who would help me or even how I would get there. That freedom to dream, and to not worry about solving any specific problems right away, unlocked something essential for me.
The world I built for myself that day will probably be the focus of my next five to ten years at Google. And it’s already starting to take shape. That’s the magic of an imagined future: It fills you with purpose and conviction, it gives you direction, it gives you a pure vision to aim toward.
The next time you find yourself in a fog, questioning the next concrete steps you might take, ask yourself a very simple question: What is the most desirable future set of conditions? Remove yourself from specific tasks and constraints and dream up the ultimate endpoint. Dreaming what things could look like on the other side of the fog, might even help to lift it.
- Psychological Science (September 2008).
- Andreas Wagner, Life Finds a Way: What Evolution Teaches Us About Creativity (2019).
- David Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World (2021).