I love the word metacognition wrote John Brandon for INC.com.
It means to think about thinking, and it’s a favorite topic of mine because it can really help motivate us, find success, or advance a cause. It’s not navel-gazing, and it’s not just being analytical. It’s a process of understanding why we think, how we think, and what drives us. If you get really good at metacognition, you can sell more products to people and improve your marketing efforts.
Interestingly, thinking about thinking involves a lot more creativity than you might think (ahem). Most of us don’t think about it, actually. We go through our normal workday processing email and chatting on Slack. To change how we think, we have to think about how to change. That requires divergent thinking, or the ability think outside of the box.
Too many of us get stuck in the same thought patterns, though.
I wrote about a new bedtime routine recently that takes only four minutes, and dozens of people have tried it and sent me an email about how it has worked for them. Sadly, it’s common to go through the same routine before bed (and it usually involves a phone or tablet), but the four-minute routine at least forces you to think about what you do. You literally have to set the phone down and think differently, but that can be hard when we’re tired, overworked, or stressed out about life.
So where do you start? One possibility: Use a normal office paper clip.
If you can become a better divergent thinker, you can ponder deep patterns of thought and even arrive at a totally different way of doing things–say, the next Uber or Airbnb.
Thinking differently is what can create totally new innovations and even change entire market segments, like transportation (cars you summon with an app) and housing (renting out a personal space).
Sir Ken Robinson conducted the study for the Royal Society of Medicine. The basic question he asked was–what can you do with a paper clip? It turns out most people can only think of about 10-15 ideas. You can clip letters together, use one to reset a smoke detector, and…that’s about it. Kids do a better job than adults, and over time the survey found that the education system can limit creative thinking at times such that older kids and adults are not nearly as good at coming up with uses for the paper clip.
However, the true divergent thinkers–the ones who are good at thinking about thinking and have a corner on metacognition–can come up with 200 uses. That’s quite a long list! Maybe it’s using one to open a SIM card slot (this only works with certain phones by the way). Or use one to create an electrical current if you build a circuit board. Divergent thinkers might come up with ideas that involve hundreds of paper clips since the question never mentions how many you can use. Women might come up with a radically different list than men. Engineers might get really techie. Who knows?
If you’re willing to take on a challenge, I’d love to see your list. The test is simple–just come up with as many practical uses for a paper clip. As you complete the exercise, think about how you came up with the ideas and, more importantly, how you can apply that kind of divergent thinking and metacognition to other areas of your life. Bonus if you go through the exercise and also include some ideas for a new marketing effort or tweaking a product you make, reaching a bigger audience on social media, or becoming more productive in other ways. I’ll give you feedback on both lists if you take the time to do this.
Will you take me up on the challenge?