Student Column: The Power of Critical and Creative Thinking

Creative Thinking will Future-Proof You

"Houston, we've got a problem."  These famous words were spoken by astronaut Jim Lovell from space in April 1970.   Apollo 13 was a spacecraft with three astronauts, sent to space on a mission to explore the moon.  Fifty-five hours into the mission, an oxygen tank exploded causing loss of oxygen and power to the command centre of the spacecraft.  

The lead flight director for Mission Control, Gene Kranz, told the ground crew at NASA that failure was not an option.  They had to come up with a successful plan to bring the astronauts home safely.  This rescue mission was not a test of technological or engineering prowess.  This was a real-life scenario.  The success of the rescue mission depended on the wits of two teams:  the three-men crew of astronauts and the team of computer operators, technicians and engineers at the Houston NASA centre on earth.  

Development of creative thinking as well as critical thinking is pertinent to overcoming the challenges of the world - with its many uncertainties and complex environmental, social and economic issues.  Creative thinking allows an individual to resolve issues using creative and innovative ways.  This requires the individual to view problems in different directions and perspectives, and to find various solutions with all their accompanying pros and cons.  It requires both divergent and convergent thinking, which means brainstorming ideas in many directions, and then coming up with an unlimited number of solutions before arriving at the best solution.  

One Olive Away from Bankruptcy

Most of the times, solutions to problems are right in front of our eyes but we fail to see them.  Take for example the case of American Airlines.  Thirty years ago, in the 1980s, American Airlines was looking for ways to cut costs.  While many other airline companies started to lay off workers to cut costs, a staff member from American Airlines suggested taking off one olive from the salads served in-flight.  It seemed like a stupid idea literally and people asked how one olive could save the company from bankruptcy.  That suggestion was not looked down on by management and through calculations they found out that by simply removing one olive, the airline saved a staggering $40,000 in a single year.  Based on this lesson learned, Northwest Airlines followed suit and saved $500,000 a year by slicing its limes into 16 slices instead of 10.  Creative thinking skills help us to view things in different perspectives and ways and solve problems.

In the case of Apollo 13, the two teams brainstormed ideas on how to power up the spacecraft to bring it back to earth.  The astronauts had to endure fever, thirst, lack of sleep, rising levels of carbon dioxide, as well as radio silence, freezing temperatures, and darkness so as to stockpile the electrical power to boost the craft for the return journey.   Finally, the solution was derived through many creative solutions and the crew members safely landed in the Pacific Ocean.  The teams had converted chaos and crisis inside the spacecraft into opportunities and not failures.  There was no available fix-it kit for the crew, no concrete solutions that were sure to succeed, and they had to work with limited time, space, technology and resources.  All these were made possible through creative and critical thinking, brainpower, talents, skills and know-how.

Creative thinking skill is as pertinent as survival skill.  It is this skill that led primitive man to develop fire, shape tools to hunt, invent clothes using animal skins, harness nature’s energy and create technologies.  And it is this skill that can help us advance into the uncertain future and survive in it.  Sometimes, it is only under the stress of limits that new ideas are shaped and developed.  People often tell us to think ‘out-of-the-box’, but at times thinking ‘inside the box’ is just as creative and innovative, and helps us to cope with crisis under pressure.

Today and the future’s job markets call for creative-minded engineers, managers, designers, researchers and individuals to leverage on the technological advancements for success.  What separates you from the next person is no longer just your academic certificate but your creative and critical thinking competencies.  

So how can we develop creative and critical thinking skills?  These two skills are not innate to everyone and they can be developed as a skill.  Our education system encourages the development of these skills through a variety of curricula, but they can only do so much.  There is almost never a clear-cut answer to a single problem and there is no specific way of teaching them.  But here are some tips on how you can develop creative and critical thinking skills.

Be analytical and critical:  Look around and start analysing critically the things around you, be it physical things or real-life issues.  Look at your mobile phone and ask yourself why it works the way it works.  Think of what other ways you can get rid of that annoying housefly without using the insecticide spray or smacking it with the fly swatter.  Read up on real issues like pollution and ask critically what can be done to reduce it.  Be critical and delve into your deeper thoughts and try to find solutions.

Get out of your comfort zone:  Some people don’t want to try new things because they are afraid of changes or nervous about uncertainties.  Be adventurous, but of course not to the extent of endangering life.  Getting out of your familiar zone can expand your perspectives and nourish your creativity and critical thinking skills. If you like reading romance books, try a different genre like mysteries or science fiction.  If you like football or tennis, try playing chess or canoeing.  In the beginning, it may not seem comfortable, but through perseverance, these new things may be very helpful to you in the future.

Travelling:  Going to new places and learning about new cultures and ways of living can broaden your knowledge about things which you have never encountered in your own country or city.  Crossing cultural and geographical boundaries will give you greater insight into how people across the world think or operate and come up with ingenious solutions to solve their problems.

Be a “Jack of all trades”:  Conventional wisdom says it is better to specialise in one field and be an expert in it, rather than studying widely in many different fields and being a master of none.  Recent studies have shown that learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage which allows you to use all the information to come up with better workable solutions.  Elon Musk, the multibillionaire who has owned companies in four separate fields (technology - PayPal & OpenAI, energy - SolarCity, transportation - Tesla, and aerospace - SpaceX), is a great example of someone whose expertise ranges from rocket science, engineering, physics and artificial intelligence to solar power and energy.  He studies widely in many different fields and connects those fields to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.

Reading:  Reading is the window to all kinds of knowledge.  Since he was 10 years old, Elon Musk read through two books per day in various disciplines.  His thirst for knowledge allowed him to get exposed to a variety of subjects which he had never learned in school.

Creative and critical thinking skills can be developed and refined over time.  There is no expiry date so you can start now and continue to develop them throughout your life.  The phrase ‘I’m not creative or I’m not good at problem solving’ is not true at all.  Anyone can be inspired, and anyone can come up with creative solutions.  The key is to equip yourself with more knowledge, experience and skills, and be more engaged in deep thinking.  So, don’t be afraid, and start being critical and creative.

WUP 15/11/2019
by Hanna Albdelwahab
©Wittenborg University Press

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