Three Habits Of The Most Creative Problem Solvers

Innovative thinkers can sometimes make a mess of things before they find a solution, but they have the stamina to keep looking.

Three Habits Of The Most Creative Problem Solvers
[Photo: Flickr user David Goehring]

Some people are better at getting out of tough challenges than others. Many of them, at least in our experience, are entrepreneurs. But all of them are creative, innovative thinkers.


That doesn’t mean they’re easy, though. In fact, the problem-solving process is often messy and chaotic, but it’s usually rescued by three key habits that this type of person tends to draw on when the stakes are highest.

1. They’re Comfortable With Uncertainty, And Sometimes Create It

To understand them, it helps to crack open a childhood picture book, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. In the story, it has snowed the night before. Sally and “me,” as they are known, are given a clear goal by their mother: Shovel a path from the door to the driveway while she runs errands.

That’s when the Cat in the Hat shows up again (this being the sequel). “Don’t mind me,” he says as he walks right into the house. Sally is very concerned. “Remember the mess he made last time!”

Forced to abandon their objective, the children run into the house to discover the Cat in the Hat taking a bath with the shower running while eating cake.

“What are you doing??!!” Sally and me cry out.

It’s the classic refrain of those tasked with a goal when confronted with the sheer oddness of the innovator, who at first appears to be working at complete cross-purposes. But the Cat in the Hat is nonetheless displaying a classic virtue of the innovator–a high degree of comfort with uncertainty. To more analytically minded people, this looks like a complete waste of time, not part of the creative process.


Why is the Cat in the Hat eating cake in the shower? He is not certain. But he is comfortable in the uncertainty, and seeing where it leads. In fact, he needs it in order to be able to see things from a new perspective. Sally and me, on the other hand, are not comfortable in uncertainty. As Srini Pillay, a Harvard psychologist and founder of the NeuroBusiness Group, told us, “Uncertainty can activate the fear center of the brain, thereby disrupting the thinking processes critical to successful innovation.” In other words, the Cat in the Hat has dropped Sally and me into fight or flight mode.

If you want to be innovative, but the uncertainty of the process drives you crazy with anxiety and fear, here’s a helpful tip: Try to create large swaths of certainty in the rest of your life so you can be, as Gustave Flaubert wrote, “violent and original in your work.” Twyla Tharp, the legendary choreographer, wakes up at the same time, has the exact same breakfast, does the same gym workout, and so forth through each moment of her day until she heads to bed. The more habit and ritual you create, the more stamina you’ll have for the uncertainty of innovation.

2. They Know How And When To Reframe Setbacks

As the story continues, the Cat in the Hat leaves a pink ring around the bathtub. In trying to clean this up he proceeds to turn a nightgown, a wall, a $10 pair of shoes, a carpet, and a bedspread pink as well. After all these failures, is it any wonder that Sally and me, and most of the rest of us, don’t like working with the Cat in Hat? Would you want this type of personality on your team?

But the Cat in the Hat doesn’t despair or grow forlorn at this point. Instead, he pulls off his hat and reveals Cats A, B, and C. Together, they figure out how to blow the pink stain out the window and onto the snow. In other words, in the face of failure, the Cat in the Hat reaches out for help.

Because failure brings up negative emotions like shame, fear, and frustration, many of us try to hide it. But all those emotions are what psychologists refer to as “frames” that we carry around in our heads. Rather than internalize these setbacks and say, “I failed,” innovative thinkers can move the failure outside and reframe it by saying, “That attempt failed.”

The Cat in the Hat is a master reframer. He calls in Cats A, B, and C and basically says, ‘These attempts didn’t work, can you think of something else?’ He doesn’t say. ‘I suck at this. I better make sure nobody knows.’ While Sally and me are paralyzed in the face of failure, this reframing allows The Cat in the Hat to ask for help and receive it.


3. They Believe They Can Keep Improving

Of course, the snow outside is now pink, and this is no solution. The Cat in the Hat takes off more hats and more help appears in the form of more cats. The team keeps iterating possible solutions, inspired and encouraged by the Cat in the Hat. They turn the snow into dots of pink and then into a blanket of pink. And on they go.

When all seems lost, the Cat in the Hat calls in Cat Z, who invents something called a “voom,” and the next thing you know the snow is pristine white. What’s more, the path to the house has been cleared.

The Cat in the Hat keeps what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would call a “growth mind-set” rather than a fixed mind-set. The Cat doesn’t believe he’s not smart enough to solve the problem. Instead he sees himself as simply not having solved it yet, even if that takes acquiring new skills or knowledge or bringing in new help. And so he does. All the while, this growth mind-set helps the Cat in the Hat maintain his emotional momentum throughout the entire innovative process.

Here’s a quick tip to help you maintain a growth mind-set: Add the word “yet” to your vocabulary, especially to the ends of your sentences–“I haven’t solved it, yet”; “I can’t find the answer, yet”; “I’m not sure what to do, yet.”

With the simple addition of this word, creative problem solvers signal to themselves and others–no matter how perplexed their teammates may be–that the breakthrough they’re looking for is out there, they just haven’t found it, yet.

Olivia Fox Cabane is the author of The Charisma Myth, and Judah Pollack is the coauthor of The Chaos Imperative.