Avoid Stagnation: Think Differently

In our lives, influence is inevitable. We are informed by our surroundings so it becomes important that we surround ourselves with interesting and challenging ideas. If we wish to avoid stagnation or to always be a step ahead of the game, we must do things that constantly make us think differently.

When you’re surrounded by your craft all of the time, your level of healthy influence is minimal and your chances of stagnation heavily increase. Don’t get me wrong, as a designer I absolutely love what I do and am always surrounding myself with art, design, and type, but I have to make an active effort to also allow other things to influence me and make me think differently.

At the moment, I’m reading Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe which focuses on the potential relationship between dark matter and the extinction of dinosaurs on Earth. I bring this up because this book has nothing to do with design directly nor anything to do with business or my growth as an individual. Instead, this book is very scientific and even dives into our theories regarding the origin of the universe. I’m reading this book because it comes from outside of my career field and in turn forces me to think differently.

One thing you must recognize is that your primary interests will always be processing in your subconscious. With that being said, if you’re reading about or looking at things that pertain specifically to your primary interests, you’re not allowing unexpected connections to be formed. With myself, two primary interests of mine are typography and business. If I’m interacting solely with content that’s typography or business based, I can expect to regurgitate the same ideas I’m consuming. As I read about the role dark matter has on the formation of galaxies, my subconscious is processing my primary interests in the background, and I can form new and strange connections.

Interests Diagram

In the diagram above, figure 1 is how most of us are, we’re extremely interested in our careers (that’s why we’re in them) and only investigate our interests slightly outside of our field. Figure 2 is where I think we should be. As you can clearly see, the interests in figure 2 extend much further out than the interests of figure 1. With figure 1, the room for growth and influence is minimal, but figure 2 presents more opportunity for unexpected connections.

If you’re invested in your career and care about it deeply then it’s not going to go anywhere if you expand your interests beyond it, yet too much focus on it can actually inhibit it. A limited range of interests beyond your career is the leading cause of stagnation and sameness seen across the entire field. You can’t grow or standout from the crowd if you’re only being influenced by the crowd.

While reading outside of your career field or primary interest is important, I believe it’s extremely important to physically involve yourself in other things that force you to think differently. The physical engagement is important because the influence is inevitable. With a book, if you’re not enjoying it then you can put it down or muster your way through it, and in turn avoid genuine interest that would have led to influence. With physical activity, you’re much less passive to the experience because you’re actively involved.

I want to quickly note that when I’m saying physically involved, engaged, or active, I’m not necessarily speaking in terms of exercise. Instead, I’m simply saying that your body should be away from what you usually do and should be participating in something else. Ideally, this activity puts you around a group of people outside of your career field. If you’re around the same like-minded people all of the time, you can suspect that your influence and thinking patterns will remain the same.

Because I don’t want to give this advice without an example, I’ll share my own. Long time readers will anticipate this coming, my physical involvement outside of art and design or business comes from running. I’m constantly thinking about design and business, but running introduces a new set of challenges for me.

By learning about the history of running, by learning about different training philosophies, by learning about racing tactics, by learning about athletic psychology, and by engaging with people outside of my immediate career field, I’m being forced to think differently. Once again, my primary interests will always linger in the back of my head, so anything I’m learning outside of that my brain will try to connect back to those interests.

Reading a book outside of your primary interests challenges you to think differently, and becoming involved in an activity outside of your career field frees up your mind to process and work on problems differently. The problem most of us experience is that we become complacent in our thinking and our interests, never leaving room to expand beyond that.

Great ideas and epiphanies will not spur from looking in expected places. We adapt to change and challenge, but when was the last time you changed something or challenged the way that you think? Anytime you’re reading or looking at something, ask yourself these questions: Is this something I already know? Is this expected? Is this helping me grow or is this more of the same? And lastly: Is this making me think differently?