Imagine this: you enter an elevator and instinctively reach for your smartphone, only to find that you have mistakenly left it on your desk. There is a sense of panic as you wonder what to do. What will you think about when you can’t have your “thoughts” feed you?
We live in an age of information when there is always a new browser window to open, a pop-up to click, a post to like, and a headline to react to. According to Pew Research, 31% of adults are online almost constantly. This has resulted in 75% of adults feeling better informed about national news and 65% feeling more informed about health and fitness.
A more informed population sounds like a positive development. With more resources than ever before, we can expect our results to be greater as well. More information readily available to us should allow us to make better decisions, connect the dots, and share knowledge with each other.
However, the power of information comes with an asterisk. We face a moment in time when people feel more isolated than ever. Mental health problems are more prevalent among young people who use social media frequently. Not only do Americans feel more isolated, anxious, and depressed; they also become less creative. Torrance’s creativity scores have steadily declined since the ’90s (William and Mary University), which many scholars attribute to the increased time we spend looking at our screens, likely consuming information.
As someone who attributes my track record of launching unlikely social enterprises such as KIND (at least in part) to my tendency to daydream and “talk to myself,” I suspect that the gap between information and creativity lies in our distracted movement away from self-reflection. I have no doubt that the moments I spent whistling and singing on the way to school; the countless times boredom forced me to use my imagination; and the brainstorming I still unofficially do in the shower helped me discover what gives me meaning and led to some of my most creative ideas.
Self-reflection is the transformative process of transforming information into something much more valuable: ideas. It is an activity in which we contribute, critically evaluate it, and consider what we may have done wrong so that we can do better next time. It can help us separate fact from fiction. It can help us relate information to our own life experiences to inform our own goals. By combining information in unexpected ways, we practice creativity. If material is simply introduced but not analyzed, not only is it useless, but it interferes with productive thinking.
One reason children are considered more creative than adults is that they know less. They have less information about how the world works, which leaves them more room to imagine what it could be. This does not mean that we should all go ahead and succumb to ignorance, but it does mean that we should be wary of information overload that stifles self-reflection.
Digesting thoughts requires more energy than simply consuming information. It follows that self-reflection requires commitment on our part. Especially in the age of information, we struggle with the addictive properties of constant dopamine reward systems. It’s easy to be distracted. It’s easy to be entertained. It’s easy, but also damaging, to slowly let our own creativity slip away.
One who chooses to be an entrepreneur does not look for the easy way. Entrepreneurs depend on their creativity, and that creativity relies on spending consistent time and space from your devices to let your mind wander, think critically, and create. Next time you leave the office, consider leaving your phone behind and see what happens.