One of the key tenets of creativity and innovation is making connections from seemingly unconnected things. The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs translated his love of calligraphy to the elegant design of Apple products, for example. He said “creativity is just connecting things.”
In some cases, people can take their deep knowledge of one topic and extend it to something completely unexpected. This is how speech pathologist Christina Hunger taught her dog to talk.
Hunger, author of How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog, translated her professional expertise helping language-delayed children into training her puppy to communicate using buttons programmed to say “outside” and “water.”
Hunger, a speech-language pathologist, works with speech and language delayed children to help them learn words and form sentences, and develop skills that might otherwise be beyond them. They touch a tablet-sized communication device referred to as a “talker” to help them express words they might not be able to verbalize.
When Hunger was dog sitting and noticed her guest dog struggling to express itself, a light bulb went off and Hunger found a new calling. She improvised a paw-friendly device with buttons that say recorded words, and modeled behavior about when to use the words. This breakthrough that started with “outside” and “water” now extends to dozens of words where now Stella can put phrases together to express herself. Today Stella can tell her people that she wants to go to the park versus the beach.
What can we learn from Christina Hunger’s innovative mindset?
Connect some dots. Hunger knew that speech-impaired children could learn words using a device, and also noticed a dog trying to express itself through gestures. She was also aware of a canine study that assessed dog intelligence on par with two-year-old humans featured by the American Psychology Association.
Try this: If you have an idea or are facing a challenge, open your thinking to unrelated fields or topics. Articulate your challenge in ten different questions to broaden your thinking.
Ground your idea in expertise. Hunger spent years working with children to develop skills. Outside of expensive education, we can teach ourselves to go deep on topics. In his book The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer, Steven Kotler talks about immersing in a topic through what he calls “five books of stupid,” that follow a progression of gently scraping the surface to getting into technical details that contribute to a deeper understanding.
Try this. Follow your curiosity. Pick an area you’re interested and order five books from the library on that topic. As you read them take notes about new terms and what excites you.
Limit social media and TV. This is a common thread in innovation, where innovators limit time spent on distractions to free up brain space for the important, long-term tasks. In his books Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport talks about limiting social media.
Try this. Inventory your phone to determine which apps are essential for work and which contribute to mindless scrolling. Pick your most-used “fun” app and delete it. You’ll feel itchy at first, but it will be OK.
Share your idea. Hunger described being on a plane and telling her seat mate that she was teaching her dog to talk. They spent the flight brainstorming on how Hunger could share what she had learned.
People who take my creativity workshops sometimes ask “what if someone steals my idea?” Even if someone tries to emulate your idea, your approach will always be uniquely yours. Hunger could feel confident that few would invest the time, energy and know-how into this sort of project. As a result of sharing, she has created a community of like-minded animal lovers who want a deeper relationship with their pets at Hunger for Words.
Try this. Set a deadline to start sharing your idea. The reason you want a deadline is because too often people want to develop an idea a little further before getting it into the world, sometimes losing years to “thinking about it.”
Recently a friend started our catch-up by asking me “what’s bringing you joy?” Clearly helping people and pets communicate more effectively brings Christina Hunger joy. By following her roadmap, more of us can get those great ideas into the world.