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Tooling Up: Career Success Factors, Part 3: Creativity in the Job Search

This "Career Success" series has been fun for me to write because I've been able to pass along some of my favorite lessons from the people I admire most. In this month's column, I'd like to focus on what I've learned about creativity, and how focusing on creativity can help you make significantly more progress in a job search.

Early in my career, it seemed to me that many of the successful scientists I knew shared something with artists and writers: a sort of "creativity gene." At every client company in which scientists consistently pushed the envelope in new product development, I noticed, good science and creativity went hand in hand. I began to research the subject.

The name of Edward de Bono is one of the first I ran across. De Bono coined the term "lateral thinking"; his books are classics. And after reading Six Thinking Hats, I felt so in sync with his work that I wanted to meet him. The only problem was that he lived on a little island off the coast of Italy. I found him, after a long and difficult search, and extended an invitation to speak at a science careers panel discussion in San Francisco, California. Although I assumed that Edward de Bono charged a lot for a seminar presentation, I had no idea how much; it turned out to be tens of thousands of dollars. Luckily, after he found out who the audience was and that the event was in San Francisco, he decided to do it as a courtesy. I don't know whether it was my persistence or a good sushi restaurant he knew about that did the trick.

A few weeks later I was one of 400 attendees listening to the master speak about the creative process for nearly 90 minutes. I traveled with him in his limo and enjoyed a fine meal and a bottle of his favorite wine, wondering all the while how and why I got so lucky. Ever since, I've considered de Bono to be one of my most important mentors, mostly through his many books.

Deliberate Thinking Versus Background Thinking

Some people spend their entire lives using the brain only for what de Bono calls "background thinking." These people have never made the effort to sit down and deliberately enjoy the pure, unadulterated joy of thinking. Although their minds work very well to help them cope with their daily lives, de Bono has said that they are handicapping themselves. The daily stimulation of the mind, which he likened in our meeting to "putting on the thinking cap," is both a pleasure and a necessary tool for personal growth.

Background thinking, as de Bono described it in Six Thinking Hats, is simply the "walking-talking-breathing type of thinking that we do all the time." Deliberate thinking, on the other hand, requires effort. Anyone can run, but it takes a practiced athlete to run deliberately. It's the same thing with thinking.

The problem with many job seekers is that they conduct a job search entirely in background-thinking mode. They scan the back pages of Science with the morning cup of coffee. Later, a few clicks of the mouse send ads scrolling across the screen from a half-dozen bookmarked Web sites. Even networking calls are made in background mode, asking about openings but avoiding any serious thought or intellectual engagement.

Break out of the rut! At my San Francisco career panel, de Bono pointed out that the first thing job seekers need to do is to start thinking deliberately about their situation. Only then will the ideas start to flow.

The Six Hats of Edward de Bono

"The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." --Linus Pauling, Nobel laureate

De Bono's classic text Six Thinking Hats takes deliberate thinking one step further by describing different viewpoints through which active, deliberate thinking can be refined. Through the analogy of colored hats, de Bono describes how a "map" for a decision can be made by viewing the problem in six different ways. It's an easy read, one or two nights, and well worth it.

If you were to print a six-color map, the press would be layering each color one at a time until the final result was achieved. Each color layer--each viewpoint--is a piece of the thinking process. Here are the six thinking hats and how they are interpreted:

- White Hat thinking is neutral and concerned with objective facts and figures.

- Red Hat thinking is charged with emotion.

- Yellow Hat thinking is sunny and positive; the optimistic view.

- Black Hat thinking is negative, pessimistic; why it can't be done.

- Green Hat thinking is creative and innovative; wild and wacky ideas.

- Blue Hat thinking is about control and reining in the thinking process.

Creativity in Your Job Search

John, a Ph.D.-level biochemist who has been looking for an industry position on and off for nearly 2 years, managed to move from background thinking to deliberate thinking. He put his White Hat on and analyzed the situation with the objective view demanded by this color.

"All right, I've been in touch with a total of 36 companies," John thought to himself while wearing the White Hat, "of which seven responded in one way or another. Of those seven, three resulted in telephone interviews. Of the three phone meetings, I was able to turn two into company visits. Both interviews resulted in offers ... to someone else." Continuing in objective facts-and-figures mode, John did a little research and identified 300 biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in his region.

John knew as he put the Red Hat on that he couldn't wear it for more than 3 or 4 minutes without starting a pity party. But the Red Hat led to a good idea. One person at the last company he visited had offered to help him. He recalled the camaraderie he felt with this scientist, yet, at the time he had been overwhelmed by a day that didn't go well and he never followed up.

The Yellow Hat was fun. Going back to his notes, John realized that he had only tapped about 10% of the local market, and it took him nearly 2 years at the snail's pace he'd been moving at. Just think what he could do if he reached the other 90%! The Yellow Hat optimism he was feeling actually started to generate some ideas, and he was overwhelmed with a feeling of great as-yet-untapped potential.

Change of hats: no more sunny thinking. John slipped on the Black Hat and began to consider all that could go wrong with his plans. He played the devil's advocate. "So what happens if I continue in the direction I've gone so far and contact more and more companies?" he asked himself. "More rejections is what I'll get. The plan won't work without a serious review of that CV and a total redo of my networking approach."

John was still thinking about that networking approach when he slid underneath the Green Hat. It was a time for new growth, fresh ideas, possibly some wacky ones. He saw himself passing out business cards at the local biotech meeting, with a minirésumé on the back. He started jotting down ideas about unique ways to meet people and social opportunities that could bring him new contacts. He also realized that his work could be valuable to food companies, something he hadn't considered until now: a whole new sector to explore.

In Conclusion

John sat back and, in his mind, put on de Bono's Blue Hat, which is reserved for the organizer of these group-brainstorming sessions. For a practitioner of Six Thinking Hats, this is the time to organize, synthesize, and think about the thinking that had been going on. As he looked back at his notes, he realized that he had indeed shaken himself out of his job-search rut and opened up some new possibilities.