innovation

The Secret to Innovation = A Cure for Depression?

I really like Doug Buckley’s Facebook posts (he’s from http://hyperactive.to). Our connection was purely accidental – he tagged a picture of the back of my husband’s head on Facebook as his own, and after a short online debate (where he finally acknowledged that I was probably an expert in recognizing the back of my own spouse’s head) we friended one another. Doug posts great photos and images (like the one on the top left of this post), insights, quotes and music about 40 or 50 times a day. One of Doug’s recent gems was “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” ~ Winston Churchill

The ability to move from one failure to another (presumably, using each as a valuable learning experience) with no loss of enthusiasm! Wow, I thought… not only is that the secret to innovation, but… I am SO not good at doing that. When I’m facing a failure, I do what any sane, logical person in the grips of Chinese handcuffs will do… I pull harder. I rearrange the deck chairs faster. I get really &$^#&^$& angry. Then I pretend like everything’s OK. And when I can’t deal with pretending any longer, I break down into tears (hopefully not around other people).

Then, in the words of Fred and Ginger, I pick myself up – dust myself off – and start all over again.

(I just read this again, and just so you don’t miss the point of that last sentence… after I dust myself off, I’m starting again on the negative pattern of trying even harder. What, you think I’d give up that easily?)

It’s a miserable approach, though, regardless of how noble it sounds. Pulling harder or pushing harder (whatever you’re doing) requires more effort and rarely generates better results. And if you’re pushing against someone else who’s not ready to see your light, or pushing on a project that other people just aren’t ready to play within the bounds of, well… good luck.

I’m a smart person. I’m solution oriented. I can make things happen!! As a result, I doggedly pursue my goals. And when I’m meeting with resistance (especially when that resistance doesn’t seem to make sense to me), I don’t respond very gracefully at all. (Sometimes I even turn psycho-chick, which makes me feel even more disturbed, because I’m pretty level headed in general and I wouldn’t act like that, would I?)

The illusion of control is an affliction that’s unique to humans. Bears looking for salmon will move on if their favorite spot in the river isn’t producing. If people were bears, we’d stick around, keep waiting, commit to a positive attitude, convene a quality circle or tiger team, rehash past data that proves the salmon used to be there (or extrapolate to show they will be there again, really), wish real hard that the salmon are still there, pretend nothing has changed, craft convincing arguments that the cost/benefit of moving to another place in the river is prohibitive (or my favorite, just cost neutral), curse the river, wish we’d never gotten into the habit of eating salmon in the first place, lose all motivation, lose sense of the meaning in one’s life without the salmon, or sit on the riverbanks weeping over the ephemeral salmon who just won’t show up no matter what we do. Pretty pathetic. Nowhere near as agile as moving to another spot in the river where the salmon may have moved on to themselves.

Professor of psychology Jonathan Rottenberg has hypothesized that this resistance mechanism is also what compels depressed people to stay in bed – hiding under the covers, retreating into sleep or alcohol or drugs (pick your poison) – is just a way to deal with one’s inability to disengage from efforts that are failing. He writes:

So this alternative theory turns the standard explanation on its head. Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals. They end up lying in bed because they areovercommitted to goals that are failing badly. The idea that depressed people cannot disengage efforts from failure is a relatively new theory. It has not been much tested in research studies. However, the idea is well worth exploring. It fits well clinically with the kinds of situations that often precipitate serious depression — the battered wife who cannot bring herself to leave her troubled marriage, the seriously injured athlete who cannot bring himself to retire, the laid off employee who cannot bring herself to abandon her chosen career despite a lack of positions in her line of work. Seeing these depressions in terms of unreachable goals may be useful clinically, and may help us better understand how ordinary low moods can escalate into incapacitating bouts of depression.

To be innovative, we have to learn how to detach from failure quickly and move on with the next stage of our ideas with enthusiasm. If Rottenberg’s new hypothesis has merit, to escape depression we have to learn how to detach from failure quickly and move on to our next goals or the next phases of our lives – with enthusiasm.

Can a futuristic mental health intervention increase our personal innovative potential?

My hunch is yes. There are always other fish in the sea.

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