By Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D.

Welcome to the new business world of fast companies, nanotechnology, zero time and E-commerce. This is the information revolution where all new information becomes old with the click of the keyboard. Success in today’s marketplace has nothing to do with having access to information or being able to transmit it rapidly, it’s about creating environments that generate new ideas and that value relationships. To generate new ideas means that you have to accelerate the unlearning of old ones.

What this means for the Association industry is that those who create environments that welcome new ideas and who value relationships will thrive. I spoke to several friends in the business about what will define successful associations in the future. Susan Sarfati, CEO of G.W.S.A.E., said “we need to create ‘safe harbors,’ places that encourage courageous, open, and honest exchanges where people can take risks and even talk about fears and failures.” Russ Abolt, CEO of International Sleep Products Association, said, “successful associations are those who continue to build community. We are a global phenomenon, so the need has become even greater to make tangible what it means to be family.” Ed Griffin, CEO of Meeting Professionals International, said “we have to master the technology, otherwise we will only depend on virtual relationships. More than ever we have to remember to maintain personal relationships with our memberships.”

I share their opinions. If you care about what you do and you like the people you’re doing it with, in an environment that encourages new ideas, you’ll be the fast company. ASAE reported that associations provide 90% of all post-graduate education. Associations can do what politicians and diplomats have been unable to do through their meetings, break down the boundaries that separate people and nations.

Seeing things from a new perspective, however, is not so easy. We tend to see what we already know. As a species we seem to look for ways to maintain the status quo. We get settled into old habits.
Neurophysiologists and learning theorists have long taught that the brain does not change after you are six years old. The theory was that the longer the learning, the harder it is to give up. It’s as if the young brain is a fast-hardening Jell-O into which a fruit cocktail of facts and behaviors is poured. Once the Jell-O solidifies, it’s hard to get the fruit out.

Current findings tell us that there are dramatic anatomical changes in the brain throughout adolescence and that cellular changes continue throughout one’s life. The brain is continually changing itself through a phenomenon called “pruning.” The body trims cells that aren’t being used, so it’s continually evolving. It’s still incredibly difficult, though, to loosen patterns of behaviors and thoughts that have been reinforced by years of repetition. The things we learned as children are teachings that can build character but they can also be the source of later pain and dysfunction. For example, be nice, honor your parents, share what you have, be strong, don’t cry, make us proud of you, be perfect, don’t speak up.

The greatest block to creativity is old judgementalism. We stifle our ideas because we judge them as unlikely to be attainable. To be creative means accelerating the process of unlearning or in today’s language, “reprogram your software.” The crux of creativity is seeing things from a new perspective.

Here are some ways to accelerate the unlearning of old judgments and limitations:

1. Learn to play again. Kids are the most creative creatures because they let their imaginations run wild. Kids don’t put down their ideas; instead, they jump in with wild enthusiasm, excited by their originality. Let go.

2. Take more risks. Seek out new experiences (sky dive, scuba, climb a mountain, write a poem, try improv comedy). Do something that gets you outside your comfort zone. These experiences invite the brain to consider things it might not otherwise encounter.

3. Seek out the awesome. Find something or some place that leaves you with your mouth wide open in awe-watching the birth of a newborn, standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Seek out experiences that help you not take yourself so seriously. Awe is the best way to keep your ego in check. Taming the ego allows you to make mistakes, even fail, and still feel okay about yourself.

4. Trust your unconscious. Our most important self is that part over which we have no conscious control, like breathing, responding instinctively to threats or falling in love. Our unconscious mind, or intuitive self, has a lot to teach us. Anyway you can see beyond your ordinary consciousness opens you up to new ways of seeing. Some people get in touch with their unconscious minds through long distance running, practicing yoga, listening to music, looking at a fire all night long while listening to drumbeats, or other ceremonies.

All of these ways open the unconscious mind to allow fresh ideas to bubble up. Accelerate your unlearning in an environment that values openness. Perhaps Marcel Proust said it best, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”