Every once in a while it is helpful to take some time to listen to what our own minds can come up with. There are several ways to do this. The main thing is that we are trying to avoid derivative thinking: that is, taking ideas that we have read or heard, using perspectives that have been given to us, and fashioning solutions that are just reworking other solutions from somewhere else.
This is tantamount to Elon Musk’s idea of first principles thinking. Instead of assuming any facts or historical solutions are accurate, we ask ourselves: If there were no limits of time or space, money or expertise, how might we go at this problem? Much like an alien visiting the earth, we try to avoid assuming we know anything about the situation and see if we can look at it with fresh eyes.
Anthropologists do this when they visit another culture. They don’t know why the people of that culture do what they do, so they ask them and they try to understand how it all works together. They cannot use the assumptions of their own culture because they do not apply. We can be so embedded in the ways we see the world that we cannot invent new perspectives, processes or solutions because we only rehash the old ones.
We can energize our thinking by asking questions about what the goal is: What is the real problem we are trying to solve? What are the characteristics of the outcome that we want? For Musk it was inventing an electric car. This meant figuring out how to power the car in a cost effective way. He started with the problem of automobile design. He could have started from the problem of human transportation.
So first, we have to be able to define the problem we are trying to solve. Then we have to take time to generate ideas. This is the old technique of brainstorming, but that often becomes another way of rehashing. There is no substitute for taking uninterrupted time to allow our minds to float. Surprisingly, what floats up are often new ideas that are unexpected even to ourselves.