“The real act of discovery,” wrote Marcel Proust, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” The trick is to cultivate what George Carlin called “vuja dé”: a strange sense of unfamiliarity in the familiar, thereby revealing opportunities or solutions you hadn’t previously noticed.
But the question is: How? Manipulating the world we see through our mental lenses comes naturally to us. Seeing and manipulating the lenses themselves, on the other hand, feels much tougher: It’s like trying to explain the concept of water to fish. But Colum McCann’s eight-point-font trick points the way: Frequently, the way out of stuckness is to defamiliarize yourself with what you’re working on by shifting your perspective.
One simple technique is to put physical distance between yourself and the problem. Research suggests that people rate an idea as more creative when it’s described as having originated in some far-away country, perhaps because they picture it, in their mind’s eye, as “off in the distance,” so that only its most important features stand out. By contrast, when it’s pictured as being close at hand, they’re more likely to get bogged down in irrelevant details, or nitpicking objections. Maybe that’s why it always seems like you get your best ideas on airplanes, or hiking in Glacier National Park: Your challenges seem far off, so the basic contours of a solution to your problem, or the next step for your project, stand out.
If hopping on a plane isn’t an option right now, try simulating temporal distance instead: That’s the message of the timeworn advice to imagine the eulogy at your own funeral. Looking back at your life from this imagined future perspective, it’s suddenly far easier to see what really matters, which battles are worth fighting, and how you’ll be proud (or ashamed) to say you spent your time.
Alternatively, externalize your thoughts by writing them down in a journal. The point isn’t necessarily that you’ll have an instant breakthrough, but that by relating to your thinking in this “third-person” way, you’ll loosen the grip of the old assumptions, seeing your thoughts afresh, and creating potential for new insights.Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter exactly how you choose to deliver a jolt to your unseen assumptions and fixed perspectives. What really counts, when you’re faced with a challenge, is remembering that it’s even an option.
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