Have you ever heard of the paperclip experiment? It’s an important lesson in how to make good choices in life.
Basically, researchers took a group of children and asked them how many uses they could come up with for a paperclip. The kindergarten students could come up with about 100 uses. The researchers then tested those kids again as they grew up to see how the results might differ. The older they got, the fewer uses they could imagine until they were adults and could come up with only 10-15.
The people conducting the experiment believed a traditional education, with a priority on finding the ‘right’ answer, inadvertently stifled divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to consider many possible options. School doesn’t usually teach you to consider all of the options. Just make the ‘right’ choice as quickly as possible.
Why do Those Paperclips Matter?
Divergent thinking is an important element of creativity. Creativity is a necessary ability, not just for artists, but for all of us. Creativity gives you the ability to be aware of many options, choose the one that is right for you, and then take action to create something out of your decision. The key here is about being aware of many options. People who you perceive as being creative, in coming up with amazing ideas, in living a life you may admire, are often people who have somehow retained their divergent thinking abilities.
They have that uncanny ability to make good choices for themselves, not because of luck, but because of the ability to see all the options…or at least many more options.
How to Make Good Choices
If you know you fall into that normal group of people who can only come up with 10-15 ways to use a paperclip, I’ve got a tip for you. A process you can do anywhere, anytime, to help make good choices. It’s a simple way to consciously stretch yourself into divergent thinking. All you need is something to write with and a piece of paper.
Practice this process with simple decisions first. If you are the one to decide where to go for dinner challenge yourself not to go to the same old standby. When you go shopping for new clothes challenge yourself not to get yet another black cardigan. When you are choosing where to go on a beautiful summer day challenge yourself not to automatically go to the same beach or park you always go to. As you practice this process with simple decisions first, it will make using the process easier when it comes time to making bigger life decisions.
Step 1: Diverge
On one side of the paper, write down 10 possible solutions to your problem. Not 8. Not 9. Keep working until you can find 10 possible solutions. They don’t all need to be practical. They just need to be solutions.
Step 2: Map
On the other side of the paper, draw a medium sized circle and put a dot in the center. The dot represents you. The circle represents your comfort zone. Write each of your possible solutions down on this map, positioning it based on how comfortable you are with the solution. The things that you are very comfortable with (and were likely more obvious) will be close to the dot. The ideas that you stretched to think up (and are likely more uncomfortable to consider) will be outside of the circle.
Step 3: Consider
Look at your map. Before you actually make a choice, take a few moments to consider what you’ve just created. The best solution is probably not the one you are most comfortable with. It’s also not the one you are least comfortable with. Odds are, the best solution is somewhere in the middle. In order to grow and experience new things, you’ve got to get comfortable with hanging out at the edge of your comfort zone. What solutions do you see in that space? What are you willing to consider?
Step 4: Choose
I will never tell you what choice is the right choice. Only you can do that. After this whole exercise, you might still look at the obvious choice closest to you and go for it. And that’s OK. You might also choose to stretch into the choice at the edge of your comfort zone or even a little bit beyond. That’s OK too.
Practice Makes Perfect
What is important in making choices this way is practicing your divergent thinking. You might still make the choice you would have made without it. At least you will know you have considered the options first. As you choose to practice divergent thinking you will be training your brain to use this way of thinking more easily and more often. This will open up new possibilities for you now and long into the future.