Brain waves and numbers

Author interview: Chris Lewis, ‘Too Fast to Think’

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Suffering from today’s ubiquity of digital comms and social media, the ‘always on’ generation is having its engineering creativity stifled, says author Chris Lewis, who thinks that the best ideas come when work is fun.

“Good engineering and good design should walk hand in hand,” says Chris Lewis, author of ‘Too Fast to Think’, a handbook written to give creative people an insight into how, while their life is observably speeding up, their ability to innovate is under threat of slowing down. “There are two reasons for this. First is that they both share the requirement to drill down, while the other is the ability to look across.”

These characteristics represent two fundamentally different, often opposing, mental processes. While the first is “what most people understand to be the Western reductionist tradition of analysis, the other is a conceptual process that we often call creativity: the ability to synthesise ideas”.

So far so good. But for the design engineer or even the engineering manager, there is a tendency to concentrate more on analytical skills, “which can lead to inefficiencies, followed by a lack of career progress”. Lewis develops his line of thought by explaining how in engineering we tend to break down the creative environment into subsets such as mathematics or physics, “both of which are highly reductionist. But sometimes, when you are looking at what the art of the possible is, you really have to look at what other people want from a design. Which means that you have to be able to ‘look across’ to how a product is going to be used and the environment it’s going to be used in, which may have nothing whatsoever to do with engineering. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition that engineers need to be able to look across.”

The problem with engineers as a group is, of course, that they are instinctively much better at the analytical stuff than they are at the more ‘soft skills’ end of an approach to innovation. This is a shame, says Lewis, because understanding how the more subjective side of creativity works “will make them better and more successful engineers”. In order to let the mind work creatively, you need to be away from your desk, free from pressure, with just a little time to consider the lilies. Lewis admits that that the engineering brain might find this “a bit non-analytical. But one thing we know is that the best ideas happen when we are away from the workplace, uninterrupted and truly able to think creatively.”

The key word here is ‘uninterrupted’. Today, the pressures of being ‘always on’, available night and day on the other end of a smartphone, expected instantly to respond to emails, social media and even telephone calls, means that we are suffering from information overload. It’s not just that external parties are clogging our time up with unnecessary interruptions: we embrace the resulting distraction. We respond to emails while in the bathroom, on holiday and in the restaurant. We’re doing it at least a hundred times a day. In a few years time we’ll be doing it 140 times a day. And it’s having a negative effect on our creativity.

In the past two decades, the world of work has changed almost beyond recognition, assisted by developments in technology. In 1997, work was a place: it was reliable and steady with the technocrats in the back office. Work followed a 9-5 rhythm, happened in the workplace where experience was valued, where market research data was on paper, people wore business attire and conversations with your boss were little more than agreeing to carry out a set of instructions. Twenty years later, work is a process in an often fragile and volatile environment, where technocrats sit on the board. Work is ‘wherever and whenever’. Youth is valued, while data is ‘big’ and available on websites. People wear what they want to, while conversations with management are inclusive and engaging. In short, today we’re living in an employment Elysian Fields.

Apart from the fact that we’re not. And that’s because we’ve got information overload, the central problem addressed in ‘Too Fast to Think’, and one to which Lewis offers a solution. Only it’s a solution that falls into the category of ‘soft skills’, and engineers are notorious for thinking that these skills aren’t relevant to a data-driven approach to their world of work.

“The principle behind my book is QED. If somebody approaches the soft skills discussed in the book with cynicism and scepticism, it rather proves the point that the book is making. The evidence in the book suggests that all the engineers, scientists, academics, military leaders and other people I interviewed, have a strikingly similar creative provenance. They all get their best ideas when they are not at work, when they are on their own and when they’re not trying. And that would suggest that the role of the subconscious – what analytical people might call ‘the hocus pocus’ – has a really big effect on where ideas come from, if at all.”

He goes on to say that were you to ask an engineer from where the best ideas originate, the answer “should conform to the representative sample across the board, which is the best epiphanies come when you’re not focused on what you’re doing”. Which is another way of framing Albert Einstein’s famous one-liner: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

But it’s getting harder to find the time to waste, largely because we are allowing what little downtime that remains to be ruled by digital media. “What you have to remember is that social media is our servant, not our master. In fact, these platforms are good servants, but evil masters. As with money, they are supposed to act as facilities to us. Now, why does all this matter? Well, one of the things about engineers is that they are at their best when they are having fun.

“All competence follows preference, and so if you’re trying to get good at something – particularly learning new techniques and technologies – it helps a lot if you’re having fun. One of the big problems we face with kids coming in at the bottom of the industry is that they see the world of work as not much fun. There’s too much pressure and they see the process as being largely irrelevant when the first rung on the ladder is a thousand feet above their heads.”

This idea of fun being the key that unlocks creativity and innovation “isn’t one of those nice-to-have things. It’s a necessity.”

‘Too Fast to Think’ by Chris Lewis is published by Kogan Page, £14.99

We read it for you

Too fast to think

You’ve responded to your work emails while in bed at midnight. You’ve tweeted while ‘relaxing’ in front of the TV. You even check for text messages while in the bathroom (very common that). In short, you’re so busy you can’t process all of the incoming data properly, your creativity is flagging and the world moves, in the title of Chris Lewis’s new book, ‘Too Fast to Think’.

In a book that examines what our exhausted work and education culture is doing to our physical and mental health, Lewis is looking for a solution to the effects of the information overload in our ‘always on’ digital society.

Research tells us that our best ideas come to us when we are away from our desks, raising the question: “Why do we spend so much time there?” Drawing on case studies from the world of technology and beyond, Lewis offers insight into how to slow down. A cautionary word of advice to engineering managers everywhere.

Extract: Life under the overload

There is evidence that information overload changes behavioural patterns. This is especially reported in university education where students feel under greater pressure than ever before. The brain responds in different ways to pressure. A little is helpful, a lot can be harmful.

Evidence shows that the brain itself physically develops when required to perform specific tasks: for instance, with taxi drivers having an enlarged hippocampus. Some processes are developed, others are diminished, and this affects actual behaviour and expected behaviour.

This obsession with busy-ness is changing our national life. Our working hours are longer. More of our work is measured. Our leaders now need to be seen to be doing more, if not actually doing more. Yet when we are asked about our role models, we always describe who they are, not what they do.

The sheer speed and noise seem to have undermined that creativity is a quiet process. And it matters greatly that we appear to be losing it. We’re losing it because we’re trying to move too fast and deluding ourselves with the illusion rather than the actuality of speed.

Creativity is how businesses and individuals can stay ahead. It’s how they sustain rapid growth with rapid renewal. It’s how they can keep sane. It’s not only at the commercial level that creativity matters – it’s at the philosophical as well.

Not only do creative societies thrive, but they can also sustain much higher output levels because they understand how potential and learning are an essential part of renewal.

Edited extract from ‘Too Fast to Think’ by Chris Lewis, reproduced with permission

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