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When You Can't Go Outside, Go Inside

by Jing Zhou

How social distance during a pandemic can unleash our hidden creativity.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.

Communities around the country — and the world — are taking unprecedented steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus, essentially isolating people from everyone but their immediate families. These new, seemingly drastic social distancing requirements are uncomfortable and scary for almost everyone, and for good reason: We are social beings, hard-wired to connect. Without our routine interactions — at work, at the gym, at the store, etc. — we may start to feel depressed and unmoored. But there are benefits to shaking up our routines and feeling uncomfortable, especially when it comes to creativity. 

I’ve studied creativity for more than two decades, and my research shows that times of disruption and upheaval can lead us to new insights and nudge us to innovate in ways we’d never have considered before. In many ways, it’s an opportunity in disguise. 

First, social isolation gives us the time and space to identify inefficient work processes. Many of us have been following the same daily routines for so long that they’ve become outmoded — but we’ve never taken the time to examine them and see that a better way exists. A company I studied used to hold frequent brainstorming meetings to generate ideas for new products. At each meeting, dozens of employees would sit in a room, whoever had a new idea would speak, and the team leader would write the idea on a white board. Toward the end of each hour-long meeting, the leader would select a few ideas from the board for further consideration. For years, they generated their new product ideas in this way. When I asked each participant privately whether this process worked well, and gave them time and space to think it through, they realized this process was no longer effective — and they came up with a better one.  

My research shows that one of the best ways to achieve this psychological freedom — and the creativity it fosters — is to isolate ourselves.


Professor Jing Zhou

Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology - Organizational Behavior

Jing Zhou

Now that social distancing has given us a lot of time and fewer interruptions, we can ask ourselves, when things go back to normal, are there better ways of managing projects? Which parts of your daily or weekly routine are no longer necessary? What is the one new thing that you should start doing to make yourself happy and productive?

This might seem daunting to those who are already feeling overwhelmed and uneasy in the midst of this crisis, and that’s understandable. But it doesn’t mean you can’t channel your angst into creative solutions. Interestingly, my colleague Rice Business emeritus professor Jennifer George and I have found that people in bad moods were in fact more apt at identifying problems at work. But identifying the problem only gets you so far — generating new solutions requires us to use our imagination. And research suggests that we are more imaginative away from the office. Sitting in cubicles, we are surrounded by people coming and going, noises on and off, conversations far and near. We have little control over these interruptions. Even if we have a private office, we have to answer knocks on the door, attend one meeting after another, talk to our co-workers and manage unexpected requests when we walk down the hallway just to get to the bathroom. All of these limit our freedom to let our minds wander to unusual ideas and novel possibilities.

My research shows that one of the best ways to achieve this psychological freedom — and the creativity it fosters — is to isolate ourselves. Many of us intentionally seek out solitude for this very reason. A scientist once told me he went on a solo hiking trip every week because great ideas came to him when he was hiking alone. A renowned mathematician spent a full week each year shut inside his house, alone, solving math problems. During that week, his wife would leave town, and he would neither step foot outside nor engage in any form of communication with others. And we know that nonstop rain kept Mary Shelley indoors for days during a summer retreat near Lake Geneva, allowing her to conceive “Frankenstein.” There are countless other examples of great minds thriving in solitude, and evidence from my research program shows that these are not exceptions, but the rule.

We don’t have to be totally alone to be creative, however. A change of environment can help by exposing us to different ideas than we normally encounter at work, where we’re typically surrounded by the same people — and the same concepts — day after day. Over time, we tend to adopt the perspectives and approaches that fit with our workplace. By cutting us off from those people and those ideas, the current health crisis gives us a chance to deliberately acquire knowledge and information in different fields and learn, remotely, from people we normally have little chance to interact with.

My colleagues and I have found that connecting with people you don’t talk to very often helps you acquire new information from different fields, which can yield fresh ideas for tackling existing problems in your own field. Indeed, the information that led Zappos founder Tony Hsieh to decide on starting a new business selling shoes online did not come from his close friends, but from a person with whom he had communicated infrequently.         

Finally, social distancing and isolation may allow us to uncover our own hidden talents, inspiring us to express our feelings artistically. From late January to early March, in order to halt the rapid spread of the coronavirus, all of China was in lockdown. In some cities, people were only allowed to go out once a week to buy food and medicine. Whereas some chafed at these constraints, others accepted what they couldn’t control and tried to be creative with what they could control.

Social media posts gave us a glimpse of their creativity. One man I came across on WeChat kept up his daily jogging routine by running endless loops from his bedroom to his kitchen and back in his tiny apartment. He created a remote competition so his friends could join him. A woman saved the roots of onions and celery stalks after cutting vegetables to cook for dinner. She put those roots in bowls of water, and posted pictures every day of the shoots growing and buds emerging; she used the plants as decorations on her dinner table. Countless Instagram posts and TikTok videos attest to the growing body of performance art being produced in quarantine — some of it hilarious, some absurd and some truly beautiful. 

My research shows that people, and entire cultures, can produce some of their most creative works in times of crisis. It may take us time to adjust to this new way of life, and no one knows how long the upheaval will last. I sincerely hope it won’t be for much longer. But while the pandemic endures, we can make the most of it by embracing the disruption to our ordinary routine and letting our creative juices flow.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

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