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Making Lists Can Spark Creativity By Freeing Your Unconscious

Listing, whether for practical or creative purposes, is liberating. When we write things down, our minds get organized, information solidifies, and from the murky depths of the unconscious emerges order.

But not all listing is ordered, strangely. The true magic of lists lies in their randomness, according to science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in his 1994 essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing (pdf). He recommended writing random words and then learning to discern patterns in these seemingly accidental collections, finding connections and artistic inspiration.

Bradbury’s lists were simple. For example:

  • The Lake
  • The Night
  • The Crickets
  • The Ravine
  • The Attic

The writer triggered his unconscious by putting pen to paper and noting whatever nouns came to mind. He poked his intuition awake, discovering preoccupations hidden from him. The lists became seeds for stories and titles, and even when his conscious mind was unwilling to supply inspiration, Bradbury’s lists served as missives from an unconscious self.

He started making random lists in his 20s and it worked for him. Bradbury became one of the most popular American writers of the 20th century, and wrote every day. This method helped him to find his way semi-consciously through the...

The Neuroscience of Asking Insightful Questions

I teach coaching skills to leaders. When I get to the section on how to ask questions (an important part of learning to coach) I might ask a trick question to start off: “How many of you are good at solving problems?” Without fail, almost all hands shoot enthusiastically into the air.

There’s nothing wrong with being good at problem solving. Except when it gets in the way of preventing the people you lead from learning and developing. Because when you solve problems for the people who report to you, those people don’t get a chance to do their own thinking or take ownership of the solutions you’ve handed them. Creativity becomes stunted and learning is stalled because those very smart people you lead don’t get to think on their own.

Asking an insightful question instead helps them to focus on what they want to do. When that insight happens, they can move forward with clarity and commitment.

There are plenty of reasons to ask more questions like “What would you do?” or “What possibilities do you see here?” These are open-ended, thought-provoking questions, not solutions disguised as questions. The most compelling reasons to ask rather...

A Psychologist Explains Why Changing Your Life Isn’t as Hard as You Think

When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband died unexpectedly two years ago, she was devastated. In her new book Option B, coauthored with organizational psychologist Adam Grant, Sandberg recounts her process of discovering resilience in the face of loss and upheaval.

The story of Sandberg—Facebook’s chief operating officer, a mother of two, and the author of Lean In—might seem like an outlier. According to the prevailing cultural narrative, change is incredibly hard, whether it involves recovering from the death of a loved one, getting over a breakup, quitting an unhealthy lifestyle, or otherwise turning your life around. But research suggests that we are actually much more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for.

Our mistaken beliefs about change can be explained by the philosophical conundrum devised by the Ancient Greeks known as the “paradox of the heap.” This paradox, first presented by the ancient Greeks around 400 BC, asks a seemingly simple question: At what point do single grains of sand become a heap of sand?

One grain of sand is clearly not a heap of sand. Neither are two grains or three grains or four. But if we keep adding single grains on top of one another, eventually...

Creating an Executive Corps for All of Government

The following is one of a series of chapters Government Executive is excerpting from a new book, Building a 21st Century Senior Executive Service, published by the National Academy of Public Administration. Click here for more information about the project.

When I joined the Obama administration as the deputy director for management at the White House Office of Management and Budget, our team focused on making government more effective and efficient for citizens and businesses through our support of the President’s Management Agenda. We looked across government and set up structures that encouraged collaboration and the exchange of best practices between agencies, within agencies, and even within teams. Instead of the focus on the day-to-day operations that comes with leading one organization or initiative, it was our job to take a whole-of-government, enterprise-wide view and encourage other senior executives around government, both political and career, to do the same.

Then, in the summer of 2015, I found myself in a different role. As acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, I was at the center of the response to a serious cybersecurity intrusion against the U.S. government, a breach which resulted in the compromise of millions...

America’s No. 1 Health Problem is Not What You Expect

Many organizations are interested in the wellness and wellbeing of their people. They promote wellness programs that encourage exercise and mindfulness. Few, however, address the No. 1  health problem.

In a 2016 interview with Politico, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said the most common illness today isn’t heart disease. It isn’t diabetes. It isn’t cancer.

It’s loneliness and social isolation.

“We underestimate how prevalent isolation is,” Murthy said. “We underestimate the impact it has on our health. In fact, we know that social isolation—science tells us, in fact—that social isolation is linked to shorter lives, to cognitive decline, to increased rates of cardiovascular disease, as well as other healthcare concerns.”

The media is catching on. Articles are appearing with greater frequency in the press about rising loneliness. In April 2017, Atlantic featured an interview with loneliness expert John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago in an article titled “How Loneliness Begets Loneliness.” The previous month in the Boston Globe, Billy Baker wrote a thoughtful, and at times humorous, article titled, “The biggest threat facing middle aged men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.”

In recent years we’ve seen articles...

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