[00:00:19.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 2 million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss the surprising science of creativity. We begin with a fascinating look into how your brain creates reality around you and assigns meaning to things that often have no meaning at all. Then we examine the unlikely relationship between doubt, ambiguity and creativity. We ask how you can chip away your assumptions so that you can open up spaces of possibility to be more creative. We explore the foundation of asking truly great questions and examine the way that doubt can be a powerful force for unleashing creative insights and more with our guest Dr. Beau Lotto.
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In our previous episode, we discussed the science of talent. We looked at how great talent is built into the very physical structure of the brain itself. Explored the incredible importance of striving at the edge of your ability and staying there as long as possible. The vital importance of making mistakes in the learning process, how a group of kindergarteners beat a bunch of CEOs at a simple team building exercise. A powerful tool Navy SEALs use to make better decisions that you can apply in your life right now and much more with our previous guest, Daniel Coyle.
If you want to unlock your true potential, listen to our previous episode. Now, for our interview with Beau.
[00:03:10] MB: Today, we have another unique guest on the show, Dr. Beau Lotto. Beau is a neuroscientist, author and the founder of the Lab of Misfits. His studies in the science of human perception have led him to work in several fields, including education, the arts, business and more. Beau has given multiple TED Talks, spoken to companies such as Google and his work has been featured on the BBC, PBS, National Geographic, Bit Think and much more.
Beau, welcome to The Science of Success.
[00:03:37] BL: Thanks for having me on.
[00:03:39] MB: Beau, we’ll very excited to have you on the show today. I know your work is really, really fascinating, and I think the listeners are really going to enjoy it. I’d love to start out with kind of a simple premise, but I think in many ways kind of unpins a lot of what you talk and write about, do we see reality as it really is? Do we see the world as it is truly is?
[00:03:58] BL: No, we don’t, but this isn’t postmodern relativism. The world exist, it’s just that we didn’t evolve to see it. We see something else. In fact, in some sense, be useful to see it. The reason why we don’t is because we’re ever separated from that world. We have no direct access to the physical world other than to our senses. The problem with that is that the senses receive information from that world that is totally ambiguous. So your listeners can do a little experiment on themselves. They can hold up their finger, one of their fingers in front of their face and they can line up that finger to something that’s in a distance that’s much larger and they move it further and towards them till the finger and the object are the same size, and of course they’re not the same size. But the point is that at that moment in time, the information arising from that object in the world and your finger as far as your eyes were concerned were in face the same size and the problem is that’s the only information your brain gets when it comes to seeing the world.
Everything that your brain is receiving from the world is inherently meaningless, because it can literally mean anything. What’s more, that information doesn’t come with instructions. It doesn’t tell you what to do. So one of the things that people need to remember is that in a very fundamental and deep sense, data by itself is pointless. There is no inherent value in any piece of data, because it could literally mean anything, and that’s true at the most fundamental level of what your brain is dealing with.
[00:05:26] MB: So tell me more about that idea and why is it that the kind of raw input that our senses collect about the world is not – As you sort of put it, is why is that pointless?
[00:05:38] BL: It’s meaningless, because it conflates more to aspects of the world. So it’s a multiplier as supposed to attitude. So you take size and distance. You put those two things together, they multiply. It’s like being given the equation X times Y equals Z, and you’re given Z and you have to solve for X without ever knowing Y. It’s mathematically impossible, because there’s an infinite number of combination in X and Y that can give you Z.
So you conflate reflect and illumination, or amplitude and sound and distance. So something that is loud and far away can give rise to the exact same stimulus that is something quite and up close. So that’s the reason why information is ambiguous, because it literally conflates multiple aspects of the real world objects. Even more than that, those objects don’t – Even if we could see them directly, which we can’t, they’re forever separate from us in terms of their behavioral value. Like I said, they don’t come with instructions. They don’t tell us what to do. So your brain has to rely on another piece of information that doesn’t exist in the moment, and that piece of information is history.
So the functional structure of your brain is literally a physical manifestation of your past interactions with the world. That’s effectively what your brain is representing, the structure your brain representing, and not just your history, the history of your culture, the history of your family, the history of your organization, your business, or in fact even your evolutionary history.
So you can really make a real argument that most of your life happened without you even there. You inherited most of that experience and it’s through that experience that your brain is making sense of meaningless data and making it meaningful.
[00:07:21] MB: In essence, the brain collects kind of this raw input and we kind of impose context of meaning on to that information to ascribe to it some sort of relevance to what we’re doing or the way that we perceive reality.
[00:07:35] BL: Yeah, we call it – So the behavioral significance of data, or the empirical significance of the data. Your brain is inherently empirical. So evolution, learning, development are all different ways, different time frames and using different mechanism to do the same thing, which is the shape, the structure of your brain according to trial and error.
As a consequence, what happens is during evolution, say, when you approaching something that had, say, a low intensity, that could have been a hole, it could have been a dark repainted surface. Originally your brain had no idea knowing which was which. So for those who actually stepped into it and it happened to be a hole, they got selected out. So your brain them has effectively encoded biases and assumptions, because that’s really what history gives you are your biases and assumptions. Those biases and assumptions keep you alive. Every time you take a step, your Brain has hundreds of assumptions that the floor is not going to give way, your legs aren’t going to give way. They are essential for your survival.
But what was once useful may no longer be useful, which is why your brain also evolved to adapt. So we’re constantly having to update our biases and assumptions. A common misperception or misconception is that while we think we might have sometimes biases and assumptions, but other times not. In fact, you always do. You can never step outside your bias assumptions. The whole idea is stepping outside the box is a silly idea, because all you do is you step inside a new box and you can never leave them.
So it creates a fundamental question about how we could actually ever see differently. But that’s what history has given you. It’s giving you biases and assumptions and it’s through that that you construct what you see.
[00:09:15] MB: So what would you say to somebody who comes back and says, “Well, there is kind of an objective real world beyond my own perception.
[00:09:24] BL: Well, of course, there’s a real world. So there is a physical world. There is a physical world literally of energy, right? What your senses are detecting is energy in terms of, say, electromagnetic radiation, or vibrations that your eardrums are detecting. So there’s little energy and chemicals in the case of your taste buds or your olfactory systems. That’s what you’re detecting, of course. So that exists, and it’s generated by stuff in the world. It’s just that, again, we don’t see it.
So take for instance color. Color makes a very good point. So color comes from light. Light by definition is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum between 4 and 700 nanometers that we’re sensitive to. Well, actually the amount of electromagnetic radiation out there is massive compared to that tiny window that we see. So we see only a very small part of the whole possible spectrum. That’s one point.
The other point is that it’s a linear space from 4 to 700, so small to large. But our perception of color is not a line. So at one end we might see red, at the other end we see blue. Now, perceptually, red and blue are actually quite similar to each other. In fact, the more similar to each other than they are to green, which means that our perception of color is in fact a circle, right? Red, green, blue to yellow.
But the light that’s generated is not circular. It’s a line. What’s more is we break that circle into categories of color, again, red, green, blue and yellow, but there’s nothing categorical about light spectrum, but it was actually useful to see four colors, and one of the possible reasons for doing so is that if you think of cartography, when you’re making a map, you need at least four colors to make sure no two countries share the same color. It’s called four-color map problem.
In other words, we’re solving these problems in a way that’s useful but not necessarily realistic. Another perfect example is pain. Pain is not – The perception of pain is not a function in the world. There’s nothing in the world that is painful, right? Pain doesn’t exist without us there to sense it. Pain is the perceived value or importance of a stimulus it tells you to avoid. But there’s nothing inherently painful about an object.
[00:11:44] MB: So how do things like sort of optical and auditory illusions sort of interact with this thesis?
[00:11:50] BL: So what they demonstrated is that a number of points. What they don’t demonstrate is far too often people will use illusions I think in a fairly superficial trite way, which is to say that our perceptions are being fooled. Your perception is not being fooled. So this might seem a contradiction to what I said. They’re only illusions if you assume that the brain evolved to see the world accurately. By definition, an illusion is to see it differently in the way it really is.
If you evolved to see the world accurately, then you’re seeing illusions. But the argument here is that we didn’t evolved to see the world accurately. We evolved to see it usefully. What evolution gives you is not accuracy. Evolution gives you utility. In that sense you kind of have two options. Either everything you see is an illusion, or nothing is. Your perceptions are not fragile. They’re robust. It’s just that they’re not seeing the world in any sort of literal sense. They’re seeing it in a utilitarian sense. That’s incredibly useful, right?
If there were a one-to-one relationship, it would be between our perceptions in the world. It would mean that we had no way of actually adopting or changing our behavior. Instead we can constantly update and see the world differently. We can constantly adopt. So there’s actually tremendous freedom and understanding that your perceptions are not of accuracy, and illusions make that point very strongly.
What’s more, they demonstrate of where the perception is constructed, which is that it’s constructed empirically, it’s constructed in your history. So in our work, we’ve shown that we can take illusions and we can make one more or less consistent with different types of what we call empirical significance and we can either increase or decrease the illusion accordingly. So we can make it more or less consistent with different kinds of experiences, or we can even create new experiences to create new illusions. In that sense, language is an illusion, right? You take a word, you take the word light and you put it in a new context and you change the meaning. So if you put it with a light house with a space in between, that means one thing, but if you put it as lighthouse with no space in between, you have yet another word, another meaning. That is effectively illusion. The same stimulus giving a rise to the different meanings depending on what surrounds it, all of which is grounded in your history of what it meant before.
[00:14:08] MB: So this kind of context that we bring to bear when we’re constructing our perceptions of reality, you touched on this a little bit, but where does that come from and how do we think about all of the things that are kind of shaping our perceptions of reality?
[00:14:21] BL: The context comes from history. So there’s no inherent value in context. I’ll give you an example. So if I give you a hieroglyph. I presume you’re not an Egyptologist, but tell me if you are. So if I give you a hieroglyph, that probably doesn’t mean anything to you. It doesn’t mean anything to me, right? But if I put it in a new context of hieroglyphs, it changes its meaning, but you still don’t know what it means. Because that context is also just as ambiguous too.
So in that sense, the concept of a context is arbitrary, right? The decision of what’s a stimulus and what’s around is meaningless. So the context is as meaningless as is the stimulus. What’s relevant is how they relate that to the past, to what this meant for your behavior in the past. What the past gave you is not the history of what the thing turned out to be, because you never have access to this. We’re not like artificial neural networks being trained by Google, because in that context you have the computer scientist that when the neural network says train and it’s giving you an answer and the computer scientist says, “No. That’s not right. This is the real answer,” and then what we call back propagates the error, right? It’s because it’s giving you an absolute error.
But in our experience, we don’t have that. We don’t have a god that tells us, “Actually, you got it wrong by this amount.” What we have is behavior. What we have is whether or not it enabled us to survive. So that’s what context is doing. It’s relating the present to the significance of the past. Again, not just your past. It could be your evolutionary history’s past. It could be the past that you inherited from your culture.
[00:15:58] MB: I think there’s a really good example that you shared this I think in your Google talk, which we’ll throw in the show notes as well. But it’s hard to demonstrate in some ways the podcast, because so many of the examples and things you use are visual, but there is like this image of a circle, a little dot that was like inside of a box and there was a triangle that was like coming in to the box and like moving towards it, right?
So in and of itself, it’s basically irrelevant, but you can impose the context that this is like a horror movie where the dot is being slowly hunted down by the triangle.
[00:16:30] BL: Yeah, that’s right. It was a video that was made in the mid-1940s. It’s a video made in 1940s, and what happens is that you have two triangles and a circle. One larger triangle and a small triangle and a circle. Of course, they don’t mean anything until you put them into motion. As soon as you put them into motion, people watching can’t but help project a meaning on to these shapes. They start hating the big triangle and they start feeling bad for the little triangle.
Then suddenly after the big triangle beats up on the little one, it moves over very sort of slowly, opens this sort of line drawing door and goes into this larger square and it looks like it’s going to go after the little circle and everyone starts worrying for the circle. Then during my talks, I actually stopped it just before the triangle does anything. Everyone’s like, “What happens to the circle?”
But, of course, none of that actually exists. All we’ve done is we’ve put it into motion, and through that motion you then recognize meaning in the motion and that meaning isn’t an inherent value of the motion itself. It’s only a consequence of what was useful to see, which is why you could argue we have a fear of slithering. We come into the world with a fear of slithering. Why? Because that is the stimulus that evoked fear for a good reason in the past.
I mean, I can give you a visual example for your audience where they can imagine in their minds two different shapes. I’ll read the minds of all the members of your audience with this, okay? So I’m going to predict the words that they’re going to give to arbitrary shapes that they’re going to construct. So one of the shapes is imagine a line drawing that’s drawn by, say, a black pen in your mind and this has a multiple points on it, quite jaggedy multiple points, 7, 8 points, okay? The other shapes has the same number of protrusions but they’re rounded, more like a cloud, right? Now you have these two shapes in your mind.
Now, they don’t have names. They’re arbitrary shapes. So I want to give you two words. The first one is kiki and the second one is booboo. Now, which of those shapes which has no name is kiki and which one of those shapes is booboo? Everyone will say that the sharp shape is kiki and the rounded shape is booboo. The deep question is why? It has everything to do with pain, right? Your perception of pain, because if I give you the words of love and hate, everyone will say the sharp shape is hate and the rounded shape is love. If I say hate and I prick your finger, it activates same part of your brain, which is about pain, because hate is a painful perception. So what you’re doing is you’re actually comparing the meaning of the information, not the information itself. That’s the basis of metaphor.
[00:19:23] MB: I love this sort of kiki and booboo example, because when I saw these two images, especially immediately it seems so obvious that sort of the sharp jagged shape is kiki, and the sort of rounded blob like shape is boobook, and yet it’s completely arbitrary.
[00:19:40] BL: It’s completely arbitrary. Of course. There’s nothing meaningful about – I mean, there’s no even meaning in the word hate. In fact some people could say, “Well, these sounds are sharp.” Well, then I can give you the word odio. For all your native Spanish speakers, if they ask the same question in their mind, “Which of these shapes is odio,” they’ll see it’s the sharp shape. Why? Because odio means hate even though it’s a rounded sound. Again, we’re comparing and we’re matching and making relationships to the meaning of that and not the data. Again, that meaning is a historical meaning.
[00:20:15] MB: I love the kind of shape examples, because they’re so arbitrary. They’re literally sort of just geometric shapes moving around, or in the case of kiki and booboo, it’s sort of static. Yet we naturally kind of impose and bring to bear all of our kind of past experiences and create, in some cases, kind of a narrative and all of these sort of information about what’s going on. Yet there’s actually nothing really there.
[00:20:38] BL: Absolutely. You can make the same argument for everything that you and I are saying right now. Everything that we’re saying right now is inherently meaningless. There is no meaning in anything we’re saying. Your listeners are actually constructing the meaning in their heads. In fact, we’re doing it ourselves. When we think about shapes and the meaning of shapes, you can think of the shape of a face and the shape of expressions of a face. Because in the same way, we have no direct access to the reflections of an object. We have no direct access to another person. We can measure their what and the where and the when, but we can never measure their why. We can never measure why they do what they do. We can never be inside their head, which means that everything that someone else is doing, you are constructing the meaning of what they do based on your history of experience, your biases, your assumptions. You can never measure their why. So you project their why. The same way you color a surface, you color another person.
So every personality that you perceive is literally inside you projected outward. You’re coloring another person based on the arbitrary information that you’re receiving.
[00:21:47] MB: It’s funny. I’ve kind of had a – This is sort of tangential related, but I also think it really underscores that point that in many cases, the way you interact and experience other people is sort of a mirror of your own perceptions. There’s this email that I’ve sent out to tens of thousands of people and it’s this really simple email, sort of a “Hey,” I introduced myself, all these stuff, and the responses – I’m actually going to write an article about this, because it’s so ridiculous, but the responses I get to this one email are complete polar opposites. Some people will be incredibly thankful, grateful, “Hey! Thank you so much. Wow! I can really sense you’re such a good person. This is awesome,” and it will literally on the other end, people will be like cursing me out, telling me I’m a scumbag, like, “Get out of my inbox.” It’s still the same text to thousands of people and yet their responses couldn’t be more different.
[00:22:32] BL: Yeah. I mean, that’s of course why we have things like emojis, because we’re trying to layer in, because you can’t have intonation in text. I mean, that’s what brilliant writers are able to do, but also that’s the beauty of poetry. The beauty in poetry is to create a certain level of ambiguity that enables people to construct the meaning themselves and to reflect on to that.
But the point is that it’s not that we sometimes do this. We always are doing it. We’re always doing this interpretation and there’s tremendous power in that awareness, because it’s only and having that awareness that you actually have the possibility of freedom. Actually, you have the possibility of doing things differently.
[00:23:12] MB: Actually, that’s what I wanted to come back to, is this idea that – This sort of conclusion that because our perceptions are sort of arbitrarily imposed on reality, we can update and adopt those perceptions. Tell me a little bit more about that.
[00:23:26] BL: Yeah. First of all, it’s not arbitrary. I mean, this is postmodern relativism. It’s not that everything is equivalent. Some things are better than others. It’s just that you don’t know if they are a pry and the information doesn’t come and tell you. You have to figure that out yourself. This is what happens when kids come into the world. They’re figuring it out themselves.
So to comment to your question or sort of slightly a roundabout way, there is a wonderful experiment where you had two kittens, recently born, eyes just opened. You have one kitten that’s running on the ground [inaudible 00:24:00] and it is physically connected to another kitten that’s actually suspended in a basket. The point of the experiment is that wherever the one on the ground goes, the one in the basket also goes, because it pulls it along. After a period of time, you take the two kittens and you test their vision. The one on the ground, well, it seems perfectly fine just as you expect. But what about the one in the basket? It’s had effectively the same visual experience, same visual history of the one on the ground. The answer is that it’s blind. It can’t see. Why can’t it see? Because it’s never been able to physically interact with the sources of meaningless information and make meaning from it. Your brain does not make meaning by passively receiving content. It makes meaning by physically engaging with the world. That’s where your brain lives. It lives in the physical world.
We so often forget that our brain evolved in a body and our body in our world. Silicon Valley keeps forgetting this. We have millions and millions of years of evolution of making meaning by physical engagement. The reason is, because that’s how your brain can actually get feedback, and feedback is essential for its synapses, for its brain connections to be made and remade. The reason why it has to do that is because the world changes. The world is dynamic, constantly updating the – Constantly updating. I call it redefining normality, is because what was once useful may no longer be useful.
The biases that we used to have were useful at one point may no longer be useful, and yet it’s still constraining our behavior. Your brain never makes a big jump. I can’t get from one side of the room to the other once without passing through the space in between. The same is true for your thoughts and your ideas. All you do is you take a small step to the next most likely possible. What is next most likely possible is determined by your biases and assumptions. There might be a great idea that far away in your space that you can’t even see it. You’re just going to take a small step.
So the only way to see differently if everything you’re doing is a reflex grounded in your history of biases. How could you ever see differently? The answer is change your assumptions and you’ll change your perceptions, because you actually change the space of possibility and therefore the thing that sits right next to you. The way you do that is by physically engaging with the world.
[00:26:24] MB: So I think that before we get into kind of the how we actually change our assumptions, I think you highlighted a really important point from your work, which is this idea that sort of from an external perception, creativity can seem almost magical, because the gap between these two connections seems really broad to a sort of a spectator, but it’s actually not to somebody who’s sort of been expanding their sort of space of adjacent possible.
[00:26:50] BL: That’s right. We typically think of creativity as putting two things that are far apart together. Again, this concept that your brain makes big jumps and this moment of insight, “Ha!” right? That’s not really what’s happening. I’d argue that there’s nothing creative about creativity. Creativity is only creative from the outside, not from the inside. So when we you see someone putting two things that are far apart together, it’s for you that they’re far apart together, right? But they are making a small step to the next most likely possible.
The difference is your space is a possibility. They have different assumptions, different biases, because they had a different history than you. So that’s why we see, “Wow! How did they do that?” Well, they’re not. They’re making a small step to the next most likely possible, but that means what creativity is, is, again, to make small steps. But to change what’s possible, by changing your biases and assumptions. If that’s true, then what makes creativity hard is the process of changing biases and assumptions, not the process of linking things that are far apart together. It shifts the focus of the task, which actually makes creatively far more accessible.
Too often, creativity research is they’ll do research on people who are creative and they say, “This is what it’s like to be creative,” suggesting that the answer is, “Well, if you want to be creative, be like them,” or that creativity is only accessible to the artist, etc. No. Creativity is accessible to everybody. What’s hard, again, is – For some reason, what’s hard is changing your biases and assumptions.
[00:28:22] MB: That reminds me of – I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book, Steven Johnson’s book; Where Big Ideas Come From. It’s a really interesting read. He talks about this notion, he studies Darwin and all these other stuff, but he talks about this notion of what he calls the adjacent possible, which is the same idea that it’s not that there’s these sort of giant creative leaps, but it’s basically that it’s kind of this slow constant kind of iteration that eventually looks like a giant creative leap.
[00:28:48] BL: That’s right. So from the outside, you don’t see that progression. But then the question that’s not answered there is the progression of what. What is progressing? In one sense, there are a number of ways of answering that. One is when you take a step, what’s the reference of that step? Is it you previous step? In other words, the step of everybody else? When you’re deviating, all you’re doing is you’re making reference to your previous step, not the step of everybody else. What you find is accidentally, or otherwise, you go in a different direction.
To do it for the sake of it is not so interesting, but to do it because you’re following a passion, you’re following something you care about, you’re making reference to your previous step, you just have to find yourself going in different directions. Not always. Sometimes you might find yourself going in the same direction, and that might be a good idea, because that might be a great solution.
The beauty of doing it this way though is you know why you’re there as supposed to just coping, right? Because this is basically a search algorithm. You’re searching your space of possibility by making reference to your previous step. Then suddenly you look up and, “Whoa!” No one’s around you, right? Because you’re following your own trajectory. You’ve now deviated. But you’ve not done anything particularly special. What you’ve done is you made reference to your previous step and you’ve challenged your assumptions and biases to the process of asking questions.
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[00:32:22] MB: So let’s get into the kind of specifics around doing that. How do we think about expanding our space of possibility and how do we think about kind of updating those assumptions and biases are changing them?
[00:32:32] BL: Well I mean, it’s interesting because it’s this conundrum where everything I’m doing in the moment I have no free will. It’s just a reflex. When I gave the kiki/booboo and the two shapes example, people couldn’t help but make connections. They would have felt like they were making a free will choice, but it was already the sense predetermined.
So it feels like how is it possible to ever do that? Again, the answer is that nothing interesting begins with knowing. It begins with not knowing. It begins with doubt. It begins with a question. So if you want to shift from A to B, the first step is not B. The first step from going from A to B is to go from A to not A. You get a stimulus and your brain automatically generates their reflective meaning. The first step is to not generate that meaning. To step into uncertainly, step into not A.
The problem is we hate uncertainty. We initially hate uncertainty in almost everything we do. Because if you aren’t sure that was a predator, it was too late. You brain evolved to take what is uncertain and make it certain. To take what is meaningless and make it meaningful, because dying was easy. If you weren’t able to predict usefully, you got selected out. So to be in a situation of uncertainty is literally to increase the probability of death during evolution, which is we then get these behavior of physiologically emotional responses towards certainty, which means escape, get out of here. Create certainty.
In fact, in some sense, one of the useful responses, the fear in some sense is anger, because what happens with anger is you become morally judgmental, become completely certain in your view. You feel better. But though a natural response, it is completely devoid of creativity. It’s how you then step into [inaudible 00:34:21]. But that’s not the deepest problem, is that we hate uncertainty. The other problem is that so many of us aren’t ware that we have all these biases and assumptions that everything we do is grounded.
Again, not always to disadvantage, usually to advantage. But we lack the awareness that everything we do is grounded in biases and assumptions, most of which we inherited. Even if we accept that premise, which illusions demonstrate fundamentally, we don’t even know what they are. We’re almost always blind to why we do what we do, which is why often marketing surveys don’t work, because people get answers that they would like to be true, or what they hope to be true in the future. But we often don’t know why what we do what we do, which is why the best person to reveal to your biases to you is usually not you. It’s usually someone else.
In fact, that’s what sometimes the best technologies do, that we get into that in a moment. But either way, once you accept that you have biases and assumptions, much of what you inherited. Even if you can identify what they are, the biggest challenge then is to question them, and that’s incredibly scary for people. I include myself in all that of course. I mean, in fact, it is going to be for any living system. That is the fundamental challenge that living brains evolved to solve, which is the challenge of uncertainty. You can argue, that’s in a sense this need for closure, the need for certainty is so strong. This is why Game of Thrones is successful, right? Because Game of Thrones finishes on a minor chord every week. If it finished on a major chord, the show would be over, right? We need that closure.
In fact, before, when Mozart would go to sleep, he would go to the piano and he would go “Da-da-da-da,” and then his father couldn’t deal with the fact that the chord didn’t finish. He’d have to go and hit that last note to finish the chord before he go to sleep. He’d even make an argument that Uber is successful, has been successful, not simply because they enable us to get a taxi easier. It’s because they tell you when the taxi is going for arrive. [inaudible 00:36:26] you’re late and you’ve got [inaudible 00:36:27] and you don’t know when it’s going to arrive. But if I say, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be there in five minutes. In fact, I’m even going to show you where it is. Your cortisol level stay low and you don’t get stressed.” We just hate uncertainty and irony if that’s the only place when we go if we’re going to see differently.
[00:36:45] MB: So how do we kind of step into uncertainty or cultivate more uncertainty in our lives?
[00:36:52] BL: It’s a great question. Well, fortunately, because it’s such an important place to go, evolution gave us a solution. So your listeners can think of, “What’s the one behavior, class of behaviors, defined by a single world that has four letters where they actually love uncertainty?” It’s not that they tolerate it, but they love it. The answer is play. Play is a solution to uncertainty. That’s why they evolved, because play is a way of being. It’s a way of interacting with the world. It celebrates uncertainty. It celebrates about possibility, diversity. It’s inherently cooperative and it’s what we call intrinsically motivating.
What I mean by that is almost everything you do – So intrinsically motivating means that the reward is the thing itself. So you think of work. You work to get money for most people, right? You do one thing to get another. The reward of play is play. What’s the reward of ski? It’s skiing. This is also true for sex, right? We have these emotional responses to perpetuate the thing happening and because play is so essential.
Now, if you add intention to play, because play has no intention, what you get is science. Science is nothing other than play with intention. I’d argue that anything that is creative is effectively the state of being, that is play with intention. The beginning of play, the beginning of stepping into uncertainty, there’s another perception that evolution gave us, which is the perception of awe and wonder.
We know we’ve been doing recent researching on wonder as have a number of labs around the world, including one of the main labs in Berkley. What we and they have demonstrated is that when you experience awe and wonder, a number of things happen inside your head, but you feel small and connected to the world. You’re surprised, and beyond surprise you think, “This is amazing. I want to understand it.” So you want to step forward. But with awe, you have to change your reference frame if you’re going to have that understanding. So it’s as if evolution gave us the perception to step forward to reduce our ego and to have the desire to know.
[00:39:12] MB: So let’s dig into the concept of play a little bit more and how do we think about sort of adding an intention to something and sort of making it playful, if that makes sense?
[00:39:24] BL: Well the adding intention is usually important, because – Again, what’s required to step into uncertainty is such a potentially scary space to be that you have to have a strong desire to be there. What’s more, a lot of our biases and assumptions that exist in ourselves or in our culture, if you think about a meme, a meme is nothing other than a cultural assumptions, and these things have a momentum. They have tremendous weight behind them. If you think about your brain, when your brain gets a stimulus, that stimulus then generates a pattern of activity in your brain, which is effectively what we call attractor state.
Think of a whirlpool. A whirlpool has attractor state. Arises from interaction of interacting water molecules. Well get to an equivalent thing happy inside your head. You get a steady state of activity that arises from interaction between your brain cells. Now, every time you get that same stimulus, generate that same meaning, you’re deepening that attractor state in the same way you’re deepening the, say, depth and the strength of a whirlpool. When you do that, it requires more and more energy to every disrupt that stable state.
Well, that energy requires desire. It requires care. So one of the most important thing is to find out and discover what it is that you care about that is bigger than yourself. We know from research, ours and others, that we will go further. We will tolerate more pain. We’ll walk further across the desert for someone else than for ourselves.
There are many stories where someone was, say, plane crash in a desert and they’re trying to get across, and it was the fear of not dying, but the fear of their loved ones finding them dead that drove them on more than the fear of their own death. Again, it’s another perception that we evolved to help us maintain that momentum to change that attractor state. When thinking about this, it’s about care. It’s about carrying for something that’s larger than yourself.
[00:41:36] MB: So I want to kind of zoom it into something really specific. Let’s say I had a challenge in my life or in my work or something like that that I wanted to address more creatively. How do I kind of concretely bring these to ideas of play and intention together into sort of solving that challenge?
[00:41:55] BL: Well, the first one I suppose is to ask a question, but ask a meaningful question. Too often, we ask the question – Well, first of all, you have to adopt that mindset and you have to adopt the mindset of entering conflict in many way. So conflict, as I define it, has to do with engaging the situation as differently from what you expect. You’re not in conflict.
So if you want to change something, you’re now in conflict, conflict with yourself for instance. Now, normally, if and I are in conflict, too often we’ve been trained and experience that my aim is to prove that you’re wrong and to shift you towards me. The problem is you’re trying to do exactly the opposite. Prove that I’m wrong and to shift me towards you. So notice that conflict is usually set up to win, but not learn. Because you only ever learn if you move. It’s a crazy strategy. Evolution does not solve conflict in this way. Evolution is about movement.
First of all, you have to adopt a state where you have the desire to move in conflict, which means you have to enter conflict in a different way. Actually, once people understand how perception works, you’re almost foolish. In fact, you are foolish if you enter conflict with answers, enter conflict with certainty, when instead you should be entering conflict with questions, entering a conflict with doubt, with uncertainty, because now you actually have the possibility of moving. So that’s the first thing.
The second thing is what is it that you’re going to move? Too often we ask questions that are information-based questions, like what, where and when. These are things that we can measure. They have a certain level of certainty about them. But they’re not actually terribly meaningful questions, because they create data. As we know, data by itself is pointless.
What you want to better understand is why, because what you really are after is not a rule. Rules are very efficient. They’re useful in cases of efficiency, but they’re specific to a context. What you want is a principle, because principles transcend context. You get to principles by understanding why something does what it does, not what it does. When you do a Google search, what Google really wants to know is not what you’re searching for, but why you’re doing the search and they use keywords as proxies for the why. So that’s the other thing. Find out what you care about. Have the desire to move, to shift and ask the right question. Ask the question of why. Then usually engage other people. Because the most interesting collaborations are between naïve and expert, and you can shift between naïve and expert in your own mind. Experts are super efficient, but they ask you a good question, because they know what they’re not supposed to ask.
Whereas people are naïve are great at asking questions, but they don’t know they’re good questions. What’s remarkable is that an expert can recognize a good question when asked. They just often can’t ask. So it’s a wonderful combination. That’s the collaboration.
When people experience growth through conflict, there is a relation that they feel. We love that feeling, because far more interesting from shifting is to expand, is to expand your space of possibility, because now you have more degrees of freedom in which to move at any point in time.
[00:45:14] MB: So looking kind of at a really granular level, how do you think about or how do you sort of in your own life start to kind of celebrate doubt and start to chip away at some of your own assumptions and be more adaptable?
[00:45:31] BL: It’s hard for me as well, but I actually think it is literally an exercise. Just like you get stronger muscles by using them, you get a stronger brain by using it. 20% of the energy that you consume goes to 2% of your body mass. Your brain is incredibly expensive. When you see differently, you literally are growing in some cases new brain cells. You’re definitely growing more complexity of the brain cells that already exist. You’re reforming connections.
When two grand master chess players sit next to each other and play a game of chess, they literally burn thousands of calories by sitting and thinking. Thinking is expensive, it’s hard, which is why so often we don’t do it. We try to avoid it. So engaged in that process of thinking is a very difficult thing, but we can actually find such value when we expand our space of possibilities. I just continue to remind myself of the pleasure that I personally get when I move from where I am, and I get tremendous pleasure even in conflict with my wife when I realize what an idiot I’ve been, right? Because, wow, that’s something I didn’t know before, and I get tremendous pleasure from that realization.
In my view, to be liberal conservative has nothing to do with your political space. It’s whether or now you’re willing to move from wherever you are. I don’t understand why we wouldn’t have that desire to move, because we get such elation when we do.
[00:47:07] MB: I think – And tell me if this is incorrect, but it seems like kind of a key piece of what you’re describing is this idea that when we encounter any sort of issue, challenge, conflict, etc., where we want to kind of bring creativity into the fold, a really key piece of it is not entering with kind of the certainty of trying to prove a certain point or prove that you’re correct or validate your existing assumptions. It’s much more about bringing kind of doubt and awareness and a humbleness that you want to find out what’s really true.
[00:47:40] BL: That’s right. Creativity begins with humility. It begins with not knowing. It doesn’t begin with arrogance. That’s for sure. If you think about design, even the design process, mostly a design begins with a problem, and then they iterate to try to find a better solution. Now, that iteration is nothing other than an empirical process, which is effectively science. But science doesn’t begin with iteration, and science doesn’t begin with a problem. The best of science begins with a question, because if you come up with a great solution to a problem that’s completely meaningless, who really cares?
What’s really hard and a real challenge is finding a good question. We don’t even teach children. We too often don’t teach children how to ask a question, much less what a good question is. Most questions are not good. It’s great to ask questions, but not all questions are good. What defines a good question will usually to dealt what I assume to be true already, but that’s very hard, because often I don’t even know what my biases and assumptions are. So how can I even question them?
So really what we’re after is asking really good questions, and what iteration is about is not about iterating to be better solutions, it’s about iterating in better questions. Because if I ask a brilliant question and come up with an answer, I usually have actually increased uncertainty, because I usually create more questions in that solution. Design thinking should be starting with questions and finding out what those questions are that you either care about deeply, what another person cares about deeply, or what is relevant to the situation, or what even the organization is about.
[00:49:20] MB: I think that makes a ton of sense and kind of ties back in this whole conversation we’ve been having about uncertainty. In many ways, questions, it seems like are an incredibly powerful tool for sort of cracking open the door of uncertainty or possibility and bringing a healthy amount of sort of humility to the questioning process can really help open up spaces of possibility that ultimately underpin creative thinking and creative insight.
[00:49:46] BL: That’s right. Again, what the best question do is they actually expand your space, because again it’s not necessarily about shifting. If you’re in a line, all you can do is go forward in a way. But if you’re on a surface, now you can move in two dimensions. If you’re in a cube, you can move in three dimensions. That’s what it is to be adaptable. That’s what it is to be open. That’s what evolution does.
I mean, another strategy is to – Because really what you’re – What you really want to do when it comes to innovation, because innovation has two sides. It has creativity and efficiency. It’s not being in one side or the other that matters. If a bus is coming at you, I don’t want people to stop listening to this and go out into the street and say, “Oh! I wonder if I could see this differently.” You want to get out of the way as fast as possible. It’s just that we live life too often as if everything is a bus.
Wisdom is knowing when to be on one side of the edge of chaos or the other, right? It’s being at the edge of chaos on average. Innovation is actually the cycle between efficiency and creativity. So quite sort of literally in some sense, what happens is often companies or individuals start with creativity and then they move quite quickly from creativity to efficiency. What they’re doing is they’re going from a high space of possibility to a lower space of possibility. They’re decreasing dimensionality. That’s the increased efficiency. The problem is they’ll then often stay there. Then the world will change and they keep trying to maximize efficiency.
What they need to do is expand the space again. They need to increase the dimensionality of the search space again. That might mean add a new person, increase a diversity of the group that you’re working. The best solutions in a complex systems exists in a complex search based on a simple search space.
So now you increase the dimensionality. You add new individuals. You increase the diversity of the group. You find new creative solution and then you would go efficiency again. You now retract, go to a more efficient of group of people, etc., and it’s a cycle.
[00:51:42] MB: So for listeners who want to sort of concretely implement the principles and ideas we’ve talked about today, what would be kind of one action item or sort of piece of homework that you would give them to test or apply some of these assumptions?
[00:51:56] BL: It would be a – Often, I’d given quite a few talks and I remember this one person coming to me afterwards and saying, “Oh! I’m so glad you told me this, because my wife has so many assumptions and biases. She’s always saying this, that and the other. I can’t wait and go home and tell her about all her biases and assumptions.”
I’m thinking, “You really miss the point,” because you’re absolutely right, but he’s missing the point that he too has all those biases and assumptions that are being projected on to her. First, take ownership of the fact that you have these biases and assumptions. Your first exercise is to engage in the person that you care about with a question, with an assumption the next time you’re in a conflict. That’s one exercise.
Another exercise is simply to practice going from A to not A, to let go, to practice letting go of reflexive meanings. What would be an example of that? Take a cold shower and you’re in the cold shower. Normally we feel, “Oh! This is uncomfortable.” Well, that’s being an A. That’s having a reflexive response to the meaning of the coldness.
Try doing this; feel the water, feel it is cold, but try not to attach a meaning to it. Just feel the water and feel it cold. Don’t attach the significance of uncomfortable, but also don’t try to pretend that it’s not. Just feel it as neutral. This is effectively what meditation is trying to do, is trying to let you sit within not A. to let go of reflexive meaning. A final other exercise, is when we think about how we can actually change what we’re going to do in the future, the way we do that is we change the meaning of what’s happened in the past.
So your brain is like a time machine. It’s moving, constantly moving past, present, future. While we can never change what happened, we can change the meaning of what happened. Because what I want to do in the future is the history of not what happened, but the history of those past meanings and literally change my statistical history, which means [inaudible 00:54:05]. That’s effectively what every story is doing, every therapy is doing, is getting you to rename the significance of what’s happened in order to change what you’re going to do in the future.
[00:54:18] MB: For listeners who want to be able to find you and your work online, what’s the best place for them to go to find you?
[00:54:24] BL: We have a lab, we have a couple of companies as well. So the lab and company are called the Lab of Misfits, and they can go online at www.labofmisfits.com. Of course, there are a number of talks, etc., and the book Deviate, or send me an email.
[00:54:42] MB: What’s a good email for them to reach you?
[00:54:43] BL: Beau@labofmisfits.com. My lab also is increasingly putting on events. We effectively turned my lab into a night club, and we measured everything in the experience. We call it the experiment, what we call experiential experiment. My idea is that people have an experience and they walk away with a better understanding of themselves. So they can keep track of where and when we do this.
[00:55:05] MB: Perfect. Well, we’ll make sure to include all of that in the show notes. Beau, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all these wisdom and all these insights with the audience. Fascinating conversation and we really enjoyed having you on here.
[00:55:17] BL: Thanks a lot. It was very fun.
[00:55:18] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created this show to help you our listeners master evidence-based growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story, or just say hi, shoot me an e-mail. My e-mail is email@example.com. That’s M-A-T-T@successpodcast.com. I’d love to hear from you and I read and respond to every single listener e-mail.
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