2 simple steps to crushing subconscious assumptions

If we keep thinking the same way we always have, we get the same results. That can be frustrating when we want more, but we aren’t able to achieve what we see some famous visionary thinkers accomplish. We may believe they have some magical characteristics the rest of us don’t have. But in reality, the only magic they have is an intuitive understanding of how to avoid some common creative thinking blocks. One of those blocks is the curse of knowledge: a cognitive bias, or mental shortcut, we all share. 

Stuck inside the box

You’ve probably heard the term “thinking outside the box.” And during your career, you may have been asked to think outside the box. But without any understanding of why the box is there or how it was created, it’s hard to know how to break out of it. The reality is that we each create our own box through the curse of knowledge.

We rely on past knowledge to subconsciously try to shortcut problem-solving. We instantly — and subconsciously — call on everything we know from the past to come up with solutions for the new problem. While this ability to call on past learning is an incredibly useful trait in many situations when you’re looking for new ideas and solutions, it actually becomes a significant barrier. It limits your thinking to slight variations of what already exists.

Interestingly, the more expertise you have in an area, the more of these limiting assumptions you have subconsciously embedded in your thinking. So, as an expert in your field, you likely have many embedded assumptions you’re not aware of, but that are likely impeding your creative thinking in a significant way. 

Crushing assumptions

Fortunately, there is an antidote to the curse of knowledge. I call it Assumption Crushing, which is a technique that involves consciously surfacing and challenging our hidden assumptions.

Step 1:

Surface your subconscious assumptions by generating a long list of statements that start with things like:

  • Well, in our business everyone knows …
  • We have to …
  • Our product is/does/has …
  • Well, of course …
  • We could never …

Be sure to list some obvious, superficial or seemingly trivial facts, observations, processes and so forth. Sometimes breaking the obvious ones can lead to the most innovative ideas.

Step 2:

Once you’ve come up with a long list, pick one that may not have to be true, and start to think of new ideas based on breaking that one. Then pick another and do it again. And again. You’ll amaze yourself with the innovative ideas you come up with.

Remember that the curse of knowledge is based on experience and expertise. Many people often assume the best way to get new thinking, new ideas and new solutions is to bring together a bunch of experts on the topic. But the reality is that all those experts will have a very similar set of subconscious mental frameworks. A better way to generate new ideas is to invite a few experts, and then several other people with different experiences, knowledge and perspectives. Those nonexperts will help force the experts to confront and overcome their curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge is a formidable adversary that exists in our brains all the time and hinders our visionary potential. By embracing Assumption Crushing, we can shatter the chains that confine our thinking and unlock the path to visionary breakthroughs.

Susan Robertson is a creative thinking expert with more than 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard University, she brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. To learn more, visit susanrobertsonspeaker.com.    

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  • Jennifer Khan says:

    Quite interesting article, I totally agree that our thinking holds us back. Our mindset needs to change before we can see positive change .

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