Imagine this: you step into the elevator and instinctively reach for your smart phone, only to discover that you’ve mistakenly left it at your desk. A sense of panic sets in as you wonder what to do. What will you think about when you can’t have your “thoughts” fed to you?
We live in an age of information, when there is always a new browser window to open, pop-up to click, post to like, and headline to react to. According to Pew Research, 31% of adults are online nearly constantly. This has led to as many as 75% of adults feeling better informed about national news and 65% perceiving themselves more knowledgeable about health and fitness.
More people being more informed sounds like a positive development. With the benefit of receiving more input than ever, we might expect our output to be greater, too. A higher volume of information readily at our disposal should better equip us to make decisions, connect the dots, and share knowledge with one another.
Yet, the power of information comes with an asterisk. We are facing a moment in time when people are feeling more disconnected than ever. Mental health problems are more pervasive among young people who frequently use social media. Not only are Americans generally feeling more isolated, anxious and depressed; they are also becoming less creative. Torrance creativity scores have been steadily declining since the ’90s (University of William and Mary), which many scientists attribute to the increased time we spend staring at our screens, presumably consuming information.
As someone who credits my track record of launching unlikely social ventures like KIND (at least in part) to my penchant for daydreaming and “talking to myself,” I suspect that the gap between information and creativity lies in our distracted movement away from self-reflection. I have no doubt that those moments I spent whistling and singing on the walk to school; the countless times boredom forced me to use my imagination; and the brainstorms I still conduct unofficially in the shower, have helped me uncover what gives me meaning, and have led to some my most creative ideas.
Self-reflection is the transformative process of converting information into something far more valuable: ideas. It is an exercise through which we make sense of inputs, critically evaluate them, and consider what we might have done wrong so that we can do better next time. It can help us sort fact from fiction. It can help us relate information to our own life experiences to inform our own purpose. By combining information in unexpected ways, we practice creativity. If material simply goes in, but doesn’t get analyzed, it’s not only worthless; it’s an impediment to productive thought.
One of the reasons children are considered more creative than adults is that they know less. They have less information about how the world works, which leaves more space for them to imagine what it could be. This does not mean that we should all go ahead and succumb to ignorance, but it does mean that we should be wary of information overload drowning out self-reflection.
Digesting thoughts requires more energy than does simply consuming information. It follows that self-reflection requires commitment from our part. Especially in the age of information, we are fighting against addictive properties of dopamine-triggering constant reward-systems. It is easy to get distracted. It is easy to be entertained. It is easy, but also damaging, to slowly let our own creativity slip away.
Anyone who has decided to be an entrepreneur is not looking for easy. Entrepreneurs depend on their creativity, and that creativity relies on spending concerted time and space away from your devices to let your mind wander, think critically, and create. The next time you are stepping out of the office, consider leaving your phone behind and see what happens.