If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This well-known quote has been attributed to several people including Maslow, Kaplan and Mark Twain. This quote is also known as the Law of the Instrument or the Golden Hammer. Whoever it’s attributed to or indeed whatever it is called the premise of this quote remains the same: the over-relience on a single approach to address whatever comes along can lead to stagnation and a lack of creativity.

Psychologists have longed to understand how it is that people show creativity. If we understand the circumstances that creativity is demonstrated it should be possible to copy that process for ourselves. We might not have the genes, or the wealth in some cases, to show world-changing creativity but we can show creativity in our own lives, as long as we avoid the pitfalls. Once such potential pitfall, amazingly, is knowledge: too much knowledge.

It might seem remarkable to show that too much knowledge can lead to a lack of creativity but much research has shown that this can happen. For example Grandmaster chess players study countless chess positions in actual games played to ‘put to memory’ the outcomes and thereby avoid the dangers and traps, as well as lay a few themselves!, in future games that they will play. Studies carried out by Chase, W.G. and Simon, H.A. who wrote their findings in Perception in Chess (1973), showed how remarkably good Grandmaster players were at recalling learnt positions in games that were the same as the ones being played in front of them. In tournaments, vital minutes would be saved when the same positions that they have learnt arise because the Grandmasters then know exactly what moves to play: they’ve learnt the solution already. Yet, when in the studies, the games’ positions were somewhat randomised (thereby eliminating the advantage of ‘learnt positions’) the Grandmaster chess players found it much more difficult to recall the positions and in some cases did little better than good amateur players.

It would seem that too much knowledge can be a dangerous (uncreative) thing. And this is where the quotation that begins this post fits nicely. The Grandmaster chess players were used to using their phenomenal powers of memory to recall positions. It was, it seems, the ‘hammer’ that they used to ‘nail’ any position they found themselves in. “Where have I seen that position before? Oh yes!…” would surely have been a frequent response. However, when that memory recall advantage was taken away there was no alternative ‘hammer’ to use; so they floundered.

If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got. There may well be many times that you’re quite content to get the same outcome each time. There may well be times when you don’t want the same outcome this time. It can be very difficult to break the habit though and do or think differently. After all, it’s served you well over the years. You’ve ‘gotten’ used to it. It feels comfortable, familiar. If you always apply a ‘hammer’ though when the ‘hammer’ isn’t the right tool creativity will be sacrificed; you might even fail.

This might particularly apply to experts in their field. Where have you always been using the same ‘hammer’? What different tool could you use for this situation? It might feel a little unfamiliar, awkward even, when you pick up and hold a different instrument. Go with it. Give it time and you’ll get more used to holding it. And you might just find you get a different outcome too: a more rewarding, satisfying and creative outcome. How good is that?!

I’d love to hear what happens. Do drop a reply below.

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