Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame, performed his last show over the July 4th weekend. Keillor’s 43-year career at the helm of the radio show was marked by enormous creativity, the production of an immense amount of material, and collaborations that ever-widened the P.H.C. tribe.


When we observe a body of work like Keillor’s, it’s natural to ask how he produced such a rich and sizeable amount of work. The good news is that the same “mind-tools” used by Keillor are available to you and me. And if we understand a bit of how creativity emerges in our brains, we can increase our personal and collective ingenuity.


Ingenuity is the result of two very different but related brain states (types of thinking). These types of thinking are often labeled, focused and diffuse. If you’re looking to solve a problem, overcome a challenge, increase creativity, or seize opportunities, you’ll want to use these two types of thinking in a cycle-like fashion. Keillor certainly does.


Focus On

During an interview for 99U, Keillor was asked the question, “do you have a process for your writing?” Keillor replied:

I do. Those hours when you wake up are really precious. And if I lose them, if I waste them, if I get engrossed in the Internet and I drift off down that stream, I really feel guilty and bad afterward. There’s a new software program I’m wanting to try called Freedom. You probably know about it, but you install it, and it makes it more difficult to go online.


When we focus, we use all our brain power to critically break ideas apart, analyze them, try them out in new ways, and evaluate possible results. This is done in an attempt to refine and shape those ideas into something concrete and meaningful. Without this kind of focus, it is impossible to arrange and rearrange our raw materials into ingenious and creative expressions. Without extended periods of focus, it’s very hard to create.


Applying focus however, isn’t the end of the story. In fact, during times of focus we often encounter problems that are not solved through more focus. In those moments, it seems the more we focus, the farther we get from solutions. That’s because “focus” is the wrong thinking tool to solve these big picture problems that often plague us on the way to creative action.


Wander About


Diffuse thinking occurs when we let go of focus, in fact, when we let go of the consuming problem altogether. This type of thinking occurs when we put our attention elsewhere and let our brains work on the problem (while we do something else). That, “something else” allows your brain to “wander,” make new connections on its own, and work out issues. All the while “you wander” –go for a walk, vacuum the house, exercise, or enter some other activity that loosens your hold on your thinking. In other words, while you wander about, your brain works its magic.


This, of course, is why we experience what I call, “the pop.” The pop is the moment of insight that often overtakes us when we aren’t expecting it. And why is that? Because “pops” are more likely in diffuse mode, when we’re “not thinking” about the solution. This allows our brains to approach the issue in a more relaxed and novel way.


Listen to Keillor talk about diffuse thinking–and wandering- in the 99U interview. He was asked: What do you do to overcome that first hurdle, getting that first idea onto the page?

I don’t think that one should sit and look at a blank page. The way around it is to walk around with scrap paper and to take notes, and simply to take notes on the observable world around you. If you walk into this room and see these great columns and think this was once a savings bank, you could put those two things together, and make some notes here – that would be the start of something.


Can you hear the “wandering about” in those comments. It’s not about “trying” but “allowing.” That’s the ticket when it comes to diffuse thinking. It’s also why neuroscientists encourage people to nap when facing tough situations and vexing problems. The advice goes something like this: Place the vexing situation in your mind before you take a brief nap, and then let it go. While you sleep your brain not only removes toxins that build up during focused thinking, but it also works on the problem. Wow!  When you wake up, wander about a bit more and see what happens. Don’t try, just allow.


A Key Point: You can’t be in both modes at once


Neuroscientists have also discovered that we can’t simultaneously be in focus and diffuse thinking modes. We have to let go of one to embrace the other. This is why it’s important to have scheduled times for focus, followed by times of wandering about to allow the diffuse mode to have its way. “Going hard at it” for hours and hours is not going to yield the results we want. We need to cycle between the two kinds of thinking in order to maximize ingenuity.


Not just for individuals, but tribes


Finally, everything we’ve explored here can be applied to a tribe as well. When you get stuck on a problem in a meeting, there comes a point when you’re unlikely to solve it through more concentrated conversation. Sometimes the tribe needs to wander as well. Take a walk together, literally. Do something to get out of focus and let the genius of the tribe emerge as you let the issue breathe.


Cycle between focus and wandering and watch your ingenuity increase.