At the end of my senior year in high school, I was required to find an internship. Up until that point, school had come easily to me. That is to say that I had mastered the art of emphasizing those things at which I excelled and avoiding those things that gave me a hard time. In this way, I was able to fool my teachers and myself that I was on my way to success. So when it came time to choose an internship, I stepped out of line with my classmates who were earnestly heading for stints with fashion design companies, scientific laboratories and law firms. I chose to work at a gas station. It was my way of saying to my school, “Thanks, but I don’t need to learn anything more.”
What followed was six weeks of utter humiliation.
The “gas station” turned out to be a repair shop, staffed by master mechanics. Initially glad to have an extra pair of hands, they started me out with easy assignments — repair a door handle, pop out a dent, change an oil filter. With no experience and even less natural skill, I managed to stretch each of these tasks over days of frustration. I often did more harm than good to the cars as the mechanics watched me with utter bewilderment. After trying dozens of new ways to further dumb down their instructions, they eventually gave up on me, putting me out to pasture rearranging cars in the lot. I was fired the next day after backing a tow truck, hard, into five different customer vehicles without noticing what I had done.
The experience left me utterly broken down, no longer holding a false sense of my own superiority. Over the years, I’ve sought to repeat it (though with less damage to those around me), putting myself in situations that revealed myself to possess a below-average level of talent: hang-gliding, singing, acting. I’d done these things on instinct, noticing that after each brief foray, my creative thinking would be sharper and more fresh. More recently, I’ve discovered a good deal of science behind why this habit works. Put simply, spending time outside of your domain of knowledge and achievement helps you avoid three common cognitive traps that block creativity in individuals and organizations: The Hot Stove Effect, Entrenchment and The Better than Average Effect.
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