One day, many decades ago, I quit my job, leaving a classroom of gifted middle-to-upper class kids in eastern Washington state for a two-hour plane flight to the unknown.
I was in a bubble of sorts (what some people might call an echo chamber), surrounded by like-minded people who all spoke the same ‘language.’ It was comfortable. I was safe.
But something was missing.
When I answered a classified ad in The Los Angeles Times for a writer, I landed in a place where every other word that came out of my new co-workers’ mouths was like a foreign language. Assigned a corner office at the U.S. headquarters for World Vision, an international development nonprofit, I was tasked with bringing in grant money for 5,025 projects in 126 countries around the world.
I might as well have been on Mars.
I was hired to manage a department of writers who would persuade the CEOs of corporations and private foundations that our projects were worth funding. It was my first job at selling. I worked 13-hour days, trying to find my way in this land where incessantly ringing phones and fax machines kept me abreast of earthquakes, wars that endangered the movement of relief supplies—food, clean water and medicines—and other calamities.
Because I was determined to learn how to do this job, I dragged my work home with me. Ever the documenter, Bob took a picture of me one night after dinner, sitting cross-legged on the living room floor amid mounds of paper separated into piles. He captured my look of puzzlement at the precise moment when I lifted my hand to my head as if to hold it up under some sort of unbearable weight.
We still laugh about that pic.
Escaping the bubble
I would go on to escape more bubbles when my professional life got too predictable. But I still remember that first time. It reminds me of a line of dialogue from an otherwise forgettable movie, Dan in Real Life. At the dinner table, someone asks Juliette Binoche’s character what her perfect day would look like.
This YouTube clip is five minutes long, but the character’s answer is revealed in the first 51 seconds:
If you weren’t able to watch this, she said (I’m paraphrasing here), she said,
I would be in another country, somewhere where I don’t speak a word of their language and know nothing about their customs.
I love this. I find that diving into totally new territory charges my brain cells and throws me off-guard enough that I am forced to think in different ways. My work at World Vision was arduous, sometimes nerve-wracking, but always exhilarating. I learned to think on my feet (because deadlines don’t budge) and look at problems from new perspectives. By the time it was over, I had survived a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert and contracted malaria, but my outlook on life was never the same.
As a writer, I learned to stretch my mind and communicate in different ways. For example, I figured out how to describe new (to me) development concepts—potable water (safe for drinking), sustainable (community-based) development, oral rehydration therapy (fluid replacement to prevent death from drinking dirty, diarrhea-inducing water)—in ways that donors large and small could relate to.
Are you in a bubble?
Now I am not suggesting that you quit the work you know most about and head for the nearest (or farthest) third world country. You don’t even need to change jobs.
It’s just a matter of thinking differently.
Whether you are in the WordPress bubble or in another one of your choosing, one of the best ways to escape is to try new things. The brain is a wonderful thing. We can overwrite what existed and create something completely new. I offer here some of the things that have worked (and still work) for me. If you practice these consistently, you will bring new perspectives to that blog post, that customer service problem, that pesky situation with a co-worker.
I can’t explain why they work. They just do.
5 Easy Ways to Escape Your Bubble and Jump-start Your Creativity
1. Ask questions.
This quote is attributed to a few different people. One of them is James Thurber, the celebrated cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist and playwright:
I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.
If you are the parent of a small child, you likely have been bombarded with questions about everything in the world. But somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, that curiosity is squelched. Because impatient parents (and educators) are often more interested in teaching kids to conform and listen to ‘authority.’
Take an hour—or a day—to just free associate with all the questions that come to mind as you work on a task, whether it’s designing a website, creating a social media plan for a new client, or something else. Because the unscripted times often produce the best ideas.
2. If you can, switch places with a colleague or co-worker for a day.
There is nothing like jumping into a new environment to engage new brain cells. Automattic, maker of WordPress, does a fine job of this, requiring every new employee to work three weeks in customer support. So the developer, who designs and codes in a vacuum (there’s your bubble again), has to step outside and see things from the user’s perspective. If you have no one to trade places with, jump on a forum and listen to people who are users of products or services similar to yours and walk a bit in their shoes.
3. Learn a new craft or skill.
Take an online or in-person class to learn a new language. Learn to knit. Dabble in water colors. Try juggling or sketching. Studies have shown that any new activity charts new paths and rewires your brain cells.
4. Write uncensored for fifteen minutes.
I’ve mentioned this one before. but if you haven’t tried it, you should. I write in my journal every morning before I start my work day. Then once a week or so, I go back through it with a highlighter pen, looking for anything that might be a new idea—or a way to look at the old idea in a new way.
5. Read, preferably outside your preferred genre.
Reading is a delicious way to get out of that bubble. It exposes you to new worlds, new concepts, new people (both real and fictional). If you are in a rut, mix it up a little. When I found myself in a sea of sameness with all the memoirs I consume, I loaded my Kindle with some modern fiction. The impact was immediate. My business writing, storytelling and vocabulary showed market improvement, even though I had not yet started writing fiction.
Bubbles are for popping. Do you escape yours from time to time?