The biggest reason why so many people don’t think they can solve problems, think of cool new ideas or imagine different futures, is not because they are boring, unimaginative drones. It’s because they most probably operate a lot of the time on autopilot. Sure, they ‘see’ everything that’s in front of them, but they don’t really register it, process it, and then try and relate it to other pieces of ‘seen’ information.

This has got a lot to do with the fact that the human brain is a fantastically good pattern recognition engine. We see patterns and then react accordingly. Sometimes we see patterns where there are none, but none the less, we reap benefits.

But patterns are retroactive, based on the past, what has already happened. So as efficient pattern recognition engines, we are really, really bad at predicting the future. The future is not always dependant on the patterns we think it is. The interplay of contributing factors is too complex for us to appreciate. (If you’re interested in this idea, read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

An interesting side effect of this is that, because we spend so much time looking at what has already happened for meaning, many people neglect to think about what the world MIGHT look like it different things happened if the pattern was disrupted.

This is why it is so important to learn how to look at things differently. It’s the only way out of the patterns. If you can accept that your current point of view is informed by a specific set of patterns, and then accept that other patterns may be at play, you at least stand a chance of being able to visualise outcomes that are different to the ones you normally anticipate… This is the root of all creative thought… dealing with an ambiguous world that is not governed by our favourite patterns.

Changing how you see the world involves becoming a focussed observer who pays attention to details instead of letting them slip by unnoticed in the rhythm of a familiar activity. It also requires the observer to suspend judgement, to not categorise on autopilot. In short, we must let the train steam on to its actual destination instead of getting off where we are comfortable.

All highly creative people are good observers. But more than this, they are impartial observers, making free associations instead of insisting on categories. They are heretics, not afraid of putting things together that the established patterns claim cannot go together.

Our ability to recognise and insist on patterns has brought us much. But our world is changing too fast now for it always to be useful. We need to become more adept at our other, really important skill: imagining alternate future, reconfiguring the dots in ways that are not in pattern and seeing what can be different.

One thing is certain, the world will not change if we do not.