Ask a roomful of people to consider a toothpick within a 2 minutes timeframe, to come up with as many uses for it as they can think of, other than the purpose for what it is made, and you will be amazed. The combined ideas will create a long list. Some of the ideas will be common in most people’s responses and some will be unique to maybe one or two people. That group of people will be pleased with their efforts.

Now, if you were to replace those people with a new roomful of people and ask them to do the same thing BUT you show them the first room’s list, you will end up with even more suggestions.

Brainstorming is a very useful tool when a company needs to get the creative juices flowing. It is a great way to stimulate new ideas for answers to problems that are not responding to the usual answers. But this practice also demonstrates how we see things. We often only see the purpose for which we think (our education, our upbringing, our beliefs)it has been created. In the exercises above you will always have those people who struggle to come up with any other ideas, or who produce only a couple more than the original use for which it was intended. And yet others produce a list full of really different ideas that everyone can agree, would work. Should an object not be perfect, it is often considered useless and is discarded. In the example above, if you opened the box and found a broken toothpick, most of us would throw it away. Some might even take the whole box back to the store and demand our money back.

What is interesting about brainstorming is how the ideas of others stimulates everyone to think of more possibilities than what they may have originally submitted. Suddenly, it is like a curtain was lifted – the same curtain that caused a person to put down their pencil and say they were finished. Our thinking has limits because many of us consider that most information is finite. If you go to school and you learned about the WWI, then you know about WWI. This is part of the problem that causes people to hold onto their ideas and are unwilling to consider any new information, especially if that information contradicts what they originally learned. They do not allow for the possibility of any more information because in their mind, there is no more information on THAT subject. This opening of a curtain in the mind, showing a whole new expanse of thinking, can be an incredible opportunity.

Usually we find someone takes the toothpick out of the food area (pick your teeth, hold a sandwich together, spear an olive or piece of cheese, etc) and into some use where it works with something else (use as a peg on a crib board, paint with it for fine detail, clean your phone or keyboard, etc). THAT is when the bell goes off and people realize that they were limiting it to food. No-one suggested there were limits, they self-imposed limits that were put in place by their own thinking.

Consider how we view people with all our years of “knowing.” We were born into a family who taught us what they thought. We were exposed to a culture that reinforced how we acted, how we viewed the world, what we ate, how we dressed, what we liked. Our exposure, or lack of, the degree of our involvement in religion, further shaped us. We attended a school that taught us a way of functioning, reinforced by the presence of many other children doing the exact same things. We were taught information, and how to process it. We were not to question that information, just absorb it, remember it and recite it at exam time. By the time we get to University where we are invited to question, we are up against ego and in many classes, we learn to say what the professor wants to hear, or suffer a bad mark. University is predictable, even though there are differences of opinion. There is still order and peer pressure and many parts where there are only facts that once presented must be memorized and written out in answers on exams. Work puts us in the same position. We must do the job and never challenge or question the boss. Many jobs do not require us to do anything more than carry out specific tasks. So, there is no wonder that ways of thinking becomes limited and that people see the world from the glasses coloured by their upbringing, their beliefs, and their education.

We use those three to categorize a person we see. We make immediate judgements, good-bad, nice-not nice, pretty-ugly, friend-foe… That person is an empty canvas that we immediately fill with the paint of our perceptions. There is no room left for possibilities. Should that person be “broken” in any way, we often assume they are useless and worse than filling the canvas without room for possibilities, we ignore the canvas in front of us completely. We have no place for that person.

We do that not only with obviously challenged people, we do it with one another. We make dozens of assumptions about people every day. We paint out all their possibilities and because of that, we limit them. By limiting them, we also limit ourselves.

The possibilities that exist for each of us, are endless. In this story, Patrick had a father who did not throw away his “broken toothpick.” He loved his son, and nurtured him and was open to what Patrick could do. Music was not necessarily what he had dreamed of for a son, but he got on board. He did everything he could to support Patrick and his love of music. I admire Patrick very much, but I am more in awe of his father. The man who went with his son, into his dream. The man who offered himself as a tool to make it possible. He stands in the background, so that his son might shine “on stage.” Where the world would say “it’s impossible” his father proves them wrong. Patrick is in a marching band.

Not only do we fail to see all the possibilities of a regular toothpick, we assume even less for the broken one. As I suggested, most would simply discard it. We don’t consider that a broken toothpick can still be used for it’s intended purpose. Who says a toothpick has to be a certain length? Raise that curtain, and trust me, once you are finished exploring that one, there is another … and another … and another …

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