“Beggars can’t be choosers”
As trite an obvious as this saying is, it does hold a deeper truth. Rarely do the perfect ingredients come together to make something happen. The perfect tools, mentors and resources don’t always show up when you need them. Since you can’t usually choose your starting point, you need to find out how to use everything you’ve got.
Creative Thinking and the Raven
I can remember hearing an old fable that demonstrated this ability. It is the story of the Raven and the Vase. One day a raven found a glass vase filled with water. The raven was thirsty and attempted to drink. Unfortunately the raven’s beak was not long enough to sip the water inside.
After a long period of thought the raven decided to fill the vase with stones. As the stones piled up at the bottom of the vase, the water level rose. Making use of something seemingly unimportant, the stones, the raven was able to drink.
What are You Wasting?
Had the raven been lazier or less intelligent, she might have ignored the stones and given up. Similarly, I believe that most of the things we consider bad circumstances, handicaps or nuisances can have a hidden function. If you choose not to waste, you can find a function for almost anything.
Tips for Finding Hidden Utility
The most important step is to start looking for utility. A lot of life and circumstance gets written off as unfortunate and the usefulness becomes wasted. Just by examining seemingly non-useful things more critically you can find hidden functions. Here are some tips to get started:
- Practice Skills – Sometimes a bad situation can give you a chance to hone your skills. Several months ago when I realized I would be leaving most of my existing social group and heading into temporary solitude, I was at first disappointed. But as I looked for utility I found that the quiet time helped me refocus my thinking and made me more comfortable being alone.
- Lessons Learned – Failures and rejections can sting, but they help you learn. The most painful periods of my life often corresponded with the times I made the most improvements.
- Constraints – Creativity doesn’t work best with limitless options. An obstacle can become an advantage if it serves to focus your ideas. After a spinal injury, Mark Zupan  was able to use this limiting factor to play in the Olympics for quad-rugby.
- Challenge – Problems can become a method to focus your mental energy. As Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi points out in his book Flow, the quality of experience is directly related to how we channel our thinking. The absence of problems can create as much internal pain and disorder as too many.
- Discipline – What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Pushing yourself through a bad situation can give you resiliency to handle bad situations in the future.
- Direct – Like the raven and the stones, some seemingly neutral elements can be made useful. Isolation can give you more time to work on projects or your health. A dull job may give you networking experience that can be useful when you change careers.
- Uncommon Experiences – Good and bad are subjective qualities. When you change your mindset away from winning/losing and success/failure, many seeming bad circumstances become unique experiences. Walking home when it starts raining might be seen as negative, but it can also be interesting and fun if you don’t mind getting wet.
Utility is a Choice
Randomness happens. Bad, good and neutral events are bound to smack into you. Instead of ignoring or resisting them when they come, ask yourself how you can use it. Directing your creative energies towards a disadvantage can help you recover or even transform it into something positive.