The Weird Case of the Numbered Circle

In one of the well-known Creativity tests, the participants are asked to come up with many different uses for an everyday object, like a paperclip, for example. It is an excellent exercise for flexing your mental model, imagining, and seeing things differently. But let’s try to play with a slightly different variant of this challenge.

Before you read on, promise yourself this: “I will resist the urge to look it up!”

Our game revolves around an image of a strange artifact — something you probably have not seen or heard of before. If you are reading this post, it is safe to assume that the image will make you curious. The thing is that nowadays when we get curious, we immediately look for answers. Nothing would be easier than Googling a short description of what you are about to see. If you are a search-savvy, you might also be tempted to run an image search and skip the textual description part. It is so easy to do…. and in the context of our little Creativity game… a grave mistake. So, please promise yourself you will not look it up!

Curious? Great! So, here’s what you have to do.

If you scroll down a bit, you will see an image of a real artifact — one you are not likely to know. Look at it. Explore it. Examine its details. Then, zoom out and see it as a whole. Remember: don’t look it up. Now, try to guess what this device is. Let me rephrase that: try to imagine what this device is. The point is not to find the correct answer but rather to come up with as many answers as possible. In that sense, this challenge resembles the paperclip challenge, but now we are playing with some strange, unfamiliar item — one which is not part of our mental model just yet. Feel free to come up with imaginary or even ridiculous answers. The stranger and more far-fetched your answers are, the better.

Take at least five minutes to come up with as many answers as possible before you read on.

public domain image

So, as I said, the point of this game is not to be correct, but rather to be imaginative. Here are a few answers my friend and I came up with. And no, none of is “the right” answer.

  • A one-year calendar with just week numbers
  • An early prototype of a roulette
  • One-hour timer with 7-minute buffer (probably inspired by the Pomodoro technique)
  • An artificial iris for a futuristic robot
  • A card dealer checklist
  • Jeans color picker
  • Weight Watchers cake slicer
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Some people will find this game easier as they spend more time exploring this strange artifact and discovering new ways to look at it. Others might feel the game becomes harder after you already came up with a few ideas. Most people will experience not knowing and not looking up the answer the most challenging part of this exercise. From the day we are born, most of us get rewarded for knowing and not asking or imagining. At least most of the time. And with the correct, accurate, and definitive answer just a couple of keystrokes away, the temptation is almost unbearable at first. And that is what makes this game so effective.

Let’s understand how to leverage this experience and harness it to become more creative.

The Connection Between Observe and Wonder

Wonder is one of the five Core Creativity Functions that take an active part in generating any creative insight. But it does not operate in isolation. Anything we Wonder about is derived from something we Observed first. What we Observe becomes the seeds from which questions grow.

The little game we played is an excellent reminder that neither Observe nor Wonder are one-time activities. In fact, the two functions feed one another and form a reinforcing Feedback Loop.

When you just saw that strange circle, what was the first thing you notice? Its shape? The fact that it is really a ring? The numbers? Maybe the colors? If you are looking for one single correct answer, you’d probably need to consider all (or most) of the traits of this strange object. But that wasn’t our goal, remember? By focusing on one feature at a time, you can generate more questions, and with them, more possibilities are created. Why is this object shaped like a circle? Is that important? What other circle-shaped things do I know? Does its size play a role in its function? These and other questions can result in some imaginative ideas, and they all focus on one of this artifact’s traits. If you then shift your attention to the colors of this item, you will quickly compile a completely different set of questions, and with them, an entirely different set of possibilities.

This is not to say that the combinations of details are not important or could not result in great ideas. But focusing only on the complete picture often masks out some important details — the details which could be the heart of a new idea.

And the same applies to using different Observation Aspects. You can start with Zooming In and Zooming Out and generate a series of questions to Wonder about. You can then Play with Abstractions and see this object in a completely different way. And how about physically Changing Perspective. Each Observation Aspect you apply is a new playground for discovering further details and with them wondering about different things.

The Connection Between Wonder and Imagine

If Wonder is fed by the things we Observe, it feeds the things we Imagine. Every question we ask, particularly the open-ended questions, is a playground where our imagination can form different answers. If we just let it.

Once again, we need to keep in mind that we are not aiming to find the correct answer from the perspective of Creativity. We wish to generate as many answers as possible. Each such answer is a variant of reality. We don’t know it — we Imagine it. And that is the most significant difference between Wondering and being curious.

When you are curious, you ask a question, but your immediate goal is to find the answers. As already mentioned, for many questions, nothing could be more trivial nowadays. Even if the question you ask is not trivial to look up, striving to find the right answer creates a radically different mindset than imagining a variety of (sometimes far-fetched) possibilities. Creativity relies on the latter.

A game like the one we played is a safe and stress-free playground to practice our mind to resist the temptation of finding the correct answer quickly and moving on to the next task. We are addicted to quick (and often shallow) searches. Trying to withdraw ourselves from this addictive habit when we are under a deadline is bound to fail. Doing so gradually in a playful atmosphere is much more effective. With time, your mind will see the benefit of delaying answering questions and imagining different solutions. This approach is much more rewarding, and our goal is to get addicted to that WonderingImagining loop instead of just getting a definitive answer.

The Connection Between Play and Wonder

Play is a powerup function. It is not necessarily part of every creative act, but it can significantly enhance and leverage other Creativity functions. When it comes to Wonder, the power of playfulness is genuinely a game-changer.

Wonder as we applied it when we explored the essence of the strange ring with the colored slices was a playful activity by definition. Rushing to find the correct answer might be the practical approach when you are goal-oriented. But to Play as we define is to Value the Journey at least as much as we value the destination. In the context of Wonder, this playful practice enables us to enjoy not knowing. The quest toward imagining different solutions is more important than reaching one definite answer. When we manage to adopt this playful mindset even when dealing with the most serious questions and challenges, we can make the most of Wondering, and we become more creative.

Thinking in Questions and Delaying Finding the Answer are two pillars of Wondering. Questions fuel Creativity. In a world that revolves around exclamations marks, questions can become your game-changer.

Using simple exercises like the one we’ve just played with, you can adopt the habit of Thinking in Questions and imagining the answers instead of looking them up. The world is full of things that can trigger questions. To discover them, we need to mindfully Observe and take the time to play with what we see. Doing so is much more than just being curious. It is taking an active part in shaping the answer.

We can make the world a place full of Wonder.

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The 3X CREATIVITY Newsletter

Three things to experience and experiment with every week

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