Friday, January 07, 2011

janusian thinking on a friday morning

A new idea came to me today.
Okay, I confess, it wasn’t exactly new. It’s been around for a while. But somehow it missed me, which is probably a good thing, given how much it delights me to be discovered by new ideas. New ideas make the world an interesting place in which to live. When boredom sets in, I try to believe there are a lot of them out there, careening through the universe, bouncing randomly off people the way you do when you’re on a mission and have to thread your way through a crowd of bystanders. If I stand by long enough, a new idea will surely come by. Some days it actually happens.
Today’s new-to-me idea is janusian thinking. It is, according to Albert Rothenberg, the researcher who coined the term, the first step in a creative process that has launched the most important discoveries made by some of the world’s most respected scientists and Nobel prize winners.
Janusian thinking is the act of bringing together opposite or conflicting ideas. Creativity begins when we bring such ideas together, watch how they tangle with each other, and stick around to move things along based on what we observe.
Now that I have a term to describe the process, there are a host of ways I could put it to use. I could, for example, think about how it applies at work.
I can confidently report that we hope counsellors witness a lot of janusian thinking. In fact, our work often begins with the act of setting the process in motion. A woman is visiting my office for the first time. She’s got too many kids and not enough money. She works at a low-paying job and on her day off she’s so depressed she can hardly get out of bed. Some days she doesn’t. The future—when she sees it--is blacker than an inky see. It does her no good to look at it, so she doesn’t look. And yet, here am I, stirring the pot.
“What are you hoping for?” I ask. “Tell me in some sentences that start with ‘I hope’.”
The answer comes in a millisecond. It is right on the tip of her tongue. “I don’t hope for anything,” she declares hotly. “I have no hope.” And you’d think she’d jump right out of that chair and march out in a rage. Imagine a counsellor having the gall to ask such a thing!
But even as she says she has no hope, you can hear that she doesn’t like the sound of it. There’s something about declaring a situation hopeless that wakes people up and starts them thinking. So she doesn’t get up and flounce out the door after all. She sits right there waiting for me to do something. And I do do something. I wait for her to say one more thing. She says, “I haven’t thought about what I’m hoping for.”
Now there’s some janusian thinking. I know I have no hope, but I haven’t thought about it.
Next thing I know, she’s thinking about it. “Well,” she says, “I suppose I hope my children will be happy when they grow up.”
Now something wonderful is happening. We’re talking about the future. Miracles, the future we are talking about is different from the present. Something has changed. In this future her children are grown up.
More janusian thinking. At this point we have the interaction of three conflicting ideas. There is no hope, she hasn’t thought about hope, and there is a hope that her children will grow up happy. Only a moment ago, no hope was the only available possibility. Now it’s got stiff competition. Give this thing a few more minutes, a little more thought, and we won’t be talking about hopelessness any more. We may not even remember that we started there.
It’s easy to give examples of janusian thinking at work. I could give you twenty right now. But it’s Friday. I don’t work on Fridays. So I’ll move on to a discussion of things I do on Fridays.
Just this morning I engaged in some janusian thinking. “There will be no blogging today,” I said to myself. “There is absolutely nothing to write. I have no ideas.”
But alas, the very act of saying it set me to wondering about the truthfulness of the situation. After all, I had just learned about janusian thinking.

Rothenberg, A. (1990). Creativity & madness: New findings and old stereotypes. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

No comments: