Monday, December 7, 2009

Don't scratch that itch

Years ago when I was a kid practicing martial arts I remember one of my teachers telling me, as I interrupted a technique to scratch my leg, that it was important I stay focused on what I was doing and that if I focused properly then I would not feel my leg itch at all. That it was in the power of my mind to feel or not feel the itch.

Last week a dear friend told me about something she had learned in yoga. It was all about not scratching an itch. And it was meant to include physical itches but also metaphorical itches. The point was to reject the reflex to scratch the itch and make it go away and, instead, to live with it and see what came of it.

I thought this was very interesting and it holds some lessons for those of us that seek innovation.

So let's think about itches for a minute. Our bodies and minds throw all sorts of itches our way. Hunger is an itch to eat. Sexual desire is an itch. Parents often have an itch to see their kids when they are away. (Or not to see them when they are!) We have itches to study a particular topic or visit a certain place. And we have itches to avoid things as well. For every itch we get that tells us to go do something, there can be a corresponding itch to not do something. There is a hunger itch, but there is also an itch not to eat if you have eaten too much. You might really not like someone and get an itch whenever you're in their presence to get away as fast as possible. Maybe you don't like being in crowds and you get an itch to find open space...

It occurs to me that these itches are mechanisms of stasis. They are designed to maintain you the way you are. Hunger is your body telling you that in order to keep going, you need fuel. Sexual desire tells you that you need release because if you don't get it, you will find yourself in an uncomfortable state. All of our itches are signals from inside telling us that something is not going according to plan and that we need to adjust our course to stay on track.

We also have various variety-seeking mechanisms. People cannot eat the same things, see the same things, do the same things day in and day out without getting bored. We crave variety and novelty. Now I would argue that these variety-seeking mechanisms are also mechanisms of stasis. Because we have been constructed to require variety and novelty, when we don't get them, we get an itch. Our bodies and minds tell us that if we don't get some new input, we will find ourselves in an uncomfortable state. Variety-seeking is really just a way to maintain. It's that old expression about running just to stay in place.

Now think about what we do when we get an itch. That's right, just shout it out when you know it. Yes! We scratch the itch. As quickly as we can. We are good little soldiers and follow the instructions from inside that tell us to get back on track right away.

That's wonderful if maintaining ourselves is our goal. But it's not so good if we want to innovate. Stasis is the enemy of innovation. Stasis is about keeping everything constant. It's about the safety of the familiar. Old routines. Old habits. Changing only enough to maintain. Stasis does not help you see wonderful new vistas or create inspiring new ideas.

The solution is to not scratch the itch. Let it ride a bit. See what frame of mind it puts you in. Find some new experiences. These will be uncomfortable. Certainly at first. Maybe forever. If they turn out to have negative consequences then scratch the itch and make it go away. But some of them may open you up to new ways of thinking and feeling. You may find yourself changed for the better by allowing yourself an opportunity to see what lies just beyond the itch.

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