“Imagination is more important than knowledge. " Albert Einstein
Young Einstein was riding his bicycle in Munich when he saw shafts of sunlight and wondered what it would be like to ride on a light beam. That thought experiment helped develop special relativity.
Thought experiments can be used for breakthrough innovation in many areas of life, including business.
Do you sometimes feel like you are pushing against a wall and would rather find the door?
Would you like a fresh perspective on a business situation?
Could you be surprised at new solutions that seem to come from nowhere?
The right thought experiment is an exquisite tool for generating new possibilities. This post aims to set the stage for such a mental journey by sharing an overview of six suitable thoughts experiments.
The Stanford Encyclopedia says, " The primary philosophical challenge of thought experiments is simple: How can we learn about reality ... just by thinking?" These thought experiments are intended to expand one's reality by accessing hidden human reserves, untapped possibilities outside the boundaries of what we normally think we can do. Breaking the chains of mental habits can unveil hidden resources and spur one to accomplish at higher levels.
"Change your thoughts and you change your world." Normal Vincent Peale
There is much outside of our perception. Peale's quote acknowledges that we don't respond to the world, but to our mental models of the world. If you ask 5 people who left a room together to describe their recollection, you'd get 5 different descriptions. Bees see ultraviolet shades invisible to humans to better find nectar. When my dog, Jefferson, sniffs a tree, I remember dogs have a sense of smell up to 100,000 times more sensitive than humans. People hear sound waves from 20 to 20,000 hertz yet dolphins and bats can hear up to 100,000 hertz. Instruments can measure frequencies yet further beyond our sensory perception. And that is far from all that is.
Thought experiments are ladders over the mental walls of our thinking habits. Once you have climbed up and are peeking over those walls, you may also hear the whispers of a new story. How would it make things different if you more regularly generated breakthrough ideas and inspiring new insights?
Two short tips before you start:
Sometimes a thought experiment can bring instant insight and other times there is an incubation period before an seemingly comes "out of the blue". Can you be surprised at what you are doing when an inspiring innovation comes to you?
The right spirit to approach these with is taking a mental break from routine for an inner adventure in which you suspend your usual patterns of thinking and enter a trance-like, dreamy state. Enjoy taking the time out.
Following are brief descriptions of 6 thought experiments. This may be enough to set you off on a fruitful mental journal and, if you need more, there will be subsequent posts that share more detailed step-by-step instructions.
The Model of Excellence
Who represents excellence in handling issues like you are dealing with? Is it a famous author, consultant, or businessperson? Or is it a historical genius like Tesla or Einstein? What would be different if this person took your place in dealing with your business challenges? How might things turn out differently? More details on the Model of Excellence method here.
The Time Machine
How would it change your perspective if you could time travel years into the past and surprise the younger you with the knowledge of later accomplishments or skills that would have seemed unimaginable then? What extra resource might you give your younger self to achieve more in the coming years? What might you similarly learn from your future self if you traveled 10 or 20 years into the future to find out what you learned or accomplished later? More details on The Time Machine here.
The Olympic Athlete
How would things be different if you could borrow the focus, beliefs, and standards of an Olympic athlete in training and focus them on a goal you want to accomplish? Where do you notice the feelings that go with this drive and intensity?
The Abstract Art Form
If you could see your business achievements as an abstract art sculpture, what would it look like? How would it look different if it represented a higher level of achievement instead? Spend some time contemplating it in detail. What new perspective or inner dialogue emerge when you return to thinking about the issue? This can work with different sensory systems as well - try it with a piece of instrumental music or even a gourmet meal.
The Systems View
Systems thinking uses visual models to help us see how interrelationships and goal of a system drive performance in a way that transcends the individual parts. If you were to step out of your business challenge and see the dynamics of it instead as such a diagram, what would it look like? See it from a distance with detachment. What ideas emerge for optimizing the situation when you look at it this way?
The Computer Simulation
Elon Musk said in an interview that we could be living in a computer simulation . What if this was actually the case and we were living in a big video game so that nothing you experience is "real" in the sense you thought it was? What would you change if you were the programmer of this virtual reality that you previously mistook as real life?
If your initial tries at these admittedly unusual ways of thinking don't immediately bear fruit, consider it like beginning a physical exercise program. The tentative first steps wake up a previously sedentary body to more activity and focusing on enough frequency and regular progress steps reap great benefits in the long run.
In NLP , we call thought experiments like this "reframes". When you feel you are in a mental rut, a reframe can brings fresh perspectives, a new, more invigorating soundtrack, or a pull into new directions previously unconsidered. Enjoy the surprises.