Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to be a Sponge

A sponge is a loosely connected fibrous material primarily filled with empty space.

Woops. Wrong kind of sponge.

What I meant was: A sponge is an individual whose openness, curiosity, creativity and intellectual absorbance significantly enhances his personal and professional life.

HERE’S THE REALITY: Sponges learn more.

Which means sponges grow more.
Which means sponges create more.
Which means sponges profit more.

How squishy!

What about you? Are you a sponge? Is your kindergartner more creative than you?

Either way, consider these ten strategies for swelling your sponginess:

1. Never stop absorbing. Being a sponge isn’t just a cute little metaphor assigned to curious, innocent children. It’s actually quite scientific, according to author Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. “Cognitive receptivity is a state of mental preparedness. It is a combination of cognitive readiness – the learner’s levels of development – and of psychological openness – the learner views the environment.”

Three lessons learned. First, be consumed by overpowering curiosity. Initiate a love affair with the things that never cease to make your head tilt. Second, stay devoted to your thought life. Make a conscious effort to remain intellectually captivated and productively preoccupied as often as possible. Third, seek out the inherent novelty in all you perceive. Execute new awareness plans frequently. How receptive is your brain?

2. Be flexible in the way you view the world. Don’t think everything to death. Treat every experience with deep democracy. Relax. Consider nothing useless. Trust your spongy faculties to absorb something from everything. Explore ideas first. Then consider whether or not they’re relevant to your world.

Like the sponge-like kindergartner who absorbs everything she encounters – good and bad – your mission is to maintain creative flexibility with all that you experience. People. Ideas. Situations. Everything. Are you willing to learn from people – even if you don’t like them?

3. Confusion is a sign of intelligence. The many holes of a sponge hold water because of a scientific concept known as surface tension, which is the slight amount of elasticity that exists between the molecules of water. That parallels to the world of creatively, as being confused (tension) isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s a stimulator of productivity. Especially when you “dare to be dumb” and follow up on your perplexities. That’s the best way to absorb new material. So, a sponge holds water, not in spite of its holes – but because of them. Maybe you need a few more holes in your creative process. How much tension are you willing to maintain?

4. Treat your environment as your mentor. Kids are notoriously spongy. They soak it all in. Even the things you don’t say. Especially the things you don’t say. Rather, kids soak up what you do and who you are.

In the same vein, I challenge you to absorb what surrounds you and incorporate the relevant material into your life. Even if not a word is spoken. Remember: Values aren’t taught – they’re caught. What did you catch today?

5. Redefine your role. I’m a writer. That’s my occupation. That’s what I do. But I’ve also expanded my job title to include additional spongy roles: Synthesizer. Collector. Broker. Organizer. Democratizer. Translator. Interpreter. Recognizer. Explorer. Receiver. Inventor. Philosopher.

It’s all part of being a sponge. Does your role need an updated definition?

6. Forensically examine ideas. Don’t act like you haven’t seen every episode of Law & Order six times. To justify your television addiction, consider applying some of your criminal knowledge. Let’s say you’re working on a new idea. Ask yourself: What would Stabler do? What would Bobby do? What would Ice-T do?

First of all, they’d seek out the people closest to the idea – then ask the hard questions. Secondly, they’d walk around the idea to view it from as many angles as possible. Thirdly, they’d engage every sense and fully take in the idea with their whole being. Are you absorbing truths with a detective-like curiosity?

7. If you don’t write it down – it never happened. Your mind is a moron. Absorbing is one thing, but retaining is another. If you want to pamper your memory and relax your brain, three words of advice: Write everything down. Immediately.

Every idea that enters into your consciousness. Don’t judge it, don’t evaluate it and don’t think about whether you can use it. Just get it down. Order comes later. Sponges don’t discriminate. Is everything you know written down somewhere?

8. Read omnivorously. Eat words. Chew sentences. Blow bubbles with ideas. Whether it’s a book, magazine or blog post, think of it as an all-you-can-eat creative buffet. Personally, I read five books a week. Have for many years. But I don’t just read them – I devour them.

I take notes, rip out pages, rewrite sentences and make them better, and fill the margins up until there’s no white space left – all of which are absorbed by the sponge known as my life. What did you read today?

9. Make ideas sit up straight. Call bullshit on the world. Use your questions as weapons. But not just (any) questions: Dumb questions, dangerous questions, disturbing questions, unexpected questions, probing questions and confrontational questions.

Ask them early, often, curiously and confidently. I promise, answers will come. And if they don’t, that’s your answer. How many questions did you ask yesterday that your competitors didn’t?

10. Don’t forget to squeeze. People tell me I’m a sponge all the time. What they don’t know is that I’m also a blender and a casserole dish. Why? Because sponges have limits. If you don’t periodically squeeze the liquid out, you might lose it. Or it will start to smell like feet.

Here’s the science behind: The act of wringing or squeezing a sponge contracts the pockets so that new surface tension can NOT be formed; thus, the water has nowhere to go but out. Similarly, in the world of creative absorption, the same principle applies: You can’t add new ideas if you don’t wring out your current capacity.

Therefore: Develop a system for emptying your brain on a regular basis. This serves dual purposes: (1) Freeing up surface area to invite future material, and (2) Restocking your creative inventory before ideas get stale. What’s your content management system?

REMEMBER: Being a sponge isn’t just about expanding your creativity.

It’s about raising your receptivity to the beauty that surrounds you.

As Nietzsche once remarked, “But one must know how to be a sponge, if one would be loved by overflowing hearts.”

LET ME ASK YA THIS…
Are you a sponge?

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* * * *
Scott Ginsberg
That Guy with the Nametag
Author, Speaker, Coach, Entrepreneur
scott@hellomynameisscott.com

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