Pay attention. I am not kidding. Really.

Tag: creative

Getting Over Functional Fixedness

photo of pickup cab converted to an elevated deer hunting stand on wheels

“Bubba” clearly has no functional-fixedness.

Is functional fixedness a familiar term to you? I’ll bet not. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and it sounds kinda geeky, doesn’t it? I first heard about this functional fixedness concept over 35 years ago. Labeled object fixedness then, I learned about it on a PBS children’s science program, no less.

I still remember the city-block-sized light bulb that came on in my head: Whoa, I’ve got to stop thinking like this! And ever since, I’ve tried very hard to practice the opposite of functional fixedness. I do this mostly in very tangible, material ways, but also in more intangible, ethereal ways.

Functional fixedness means
just what it sounds like it means:

fixing something in our minds as functioning only in one way or for one purpose – the one which the maker intended. Getting over functional fixedness simply means redefining anything’s intended use. Stated like this, I’m quite sure you’re thinking, I already know this. But you’d be surprised how we all, even the very creative amongst us, get caught in this narrow, functional-fixedness mindset sometimes.

Real-life examples
run circles around definitions.

If you’re a visual learner, visit a well designed, upscale, antique store to see creative examples of how the experts get over functional fixedness. No time for that? Visit etsy.com or a similar site, instead. Observe how its Repurposing Mavens have taken an item, let’s say a heavy metal pair of ice tongs (manufactured for ice men to deliver blocks of ice for 1920s and ’30s household ice boxes), and turned it into something else – a paper towel holder, for example. Or maybe you’ll see just the metal part of an old garden rake, hung on a wall, and repurposed as a hat-and-coat rack, wineglass rack, kitchen utensils rack, or necklace holder. These are prime examples of getting over functional fixedness.

photo of metal rake head holding necklaces

photo of metal head of old rake holding kitchen utensils

These rakes won’t see soil again!

Junk stores, thrift stores, charity shops, second-hand shops (and most likely, your grandparents’ garage!) are awash in these very items – the kind found in trendy, up-market stores that have been manufactured to look like these old items and marketed to function as the very items I’ve listed above. When I first started practicing the opposite of functional fixedness, there was no etsy.com or any other similarly cool site. I had to hack out new ideas all by my lonesome. If you’re a wannabe Repurposing Maven today, lucky you: you have all kinds of websites to help you overcome functional fixedness.

Here are some
no-functional-fixedness examples
that have warmed my heart.

Let’s start with our opening photo of a Bubba deer hunting stand made from a pickup cab, elevated – and on wheels, no less. Those West Virginia boys don’t miss much, do they? And they obviously have a few tricks to teach the rest of us about getting over functional fixedness. Oh my, do they ever.

My own examples are a good deal, well, a good deal less “interesting.” I could use other words (silliness-on-stilts comes to mind), but I’ll be tactful, for once.)

We used to have a beautiful oak cabinet in our bedroom that held sweaters and socks, but it began life as a Victrola cabinet. You know – thick, chunky, 3/8-inch-thick phonograph records played on a unit which was hand cranked? At one time, our cabinet contained the guts for playing records in its top and a bottom section for storing records. Long before it was gifted to us by some garage-cleaning friends, someone had removed all the phonograph guts and the vertical dividers for records. Technically, it was still a Victrola cabinet, but we used it for clothes storage.

On our previous home’s breezeway, I once had a display of rather clunky, lidded, hinged boxes that were delivered to my father in the 1950s and 1960s, filled with guns that were broken down and packed in grease. With them I’d stacked old wooden drawers, salvaged in the 1960s from a hardware store opened in the mid-1800s. As I had them displayed, they looked as if they were all of a piece, even though they were only seven old drawers and packing crates placed on end or sideways to hold gardening books and supplies. They were no longer a motley collection of crates and drawers; they’d been repurposed into a single storage unit. (Not as colorful as Bubba’s deer stand, but every bit as practical and useful.)

A friend of ours was recently paying attention on Craigslist when she snagged a printer’s table from the mid-1800s, complete with its original three-inch-thick marble top and vertical slots below the table top for printers trays. Since she’s no printer (and printers haven’t used the antiquated technology which necessitated this table for a very long time), she’s repurposing it into a seriously sturdy foyer table that can withstand any amount of abuse from a household of teenagers.

Proud of yourself, aren’t you?

You’ve already, though perhaps unconsciously, begun your own process of overcoming functional fixedness and repurposing objects, haven’t you? In fact, we’re all probably way better at this than our grandparents or great-grandparents, possibly because we get more practice. Technology is changing our lives faster than our ancestors could’ve possibly imagined.

Things are outliving
their intended purposes
right before our eyes –
almost monthly.

Certainly yearly. Pay attention: now that your music lives in cyberspace and is accessed by your smartphone, iPod, etc., and you’ve hauled your CD collection to the thrift store, what will you do with that pricey, cherry wood box that once held your favorite CDs? If you find yourself relying more and more on the ether version of movies and shows, what will you do with that box of drawers housing your DVD collection (after you also cart them to the thrift store)?

And that nifty little piece of furniture – the one in your parents’ family room – complete with nicely paneled doors that was manufactured to store VHS tapes? Do you suppose they’ll ask you if you want it, since they’ve finally retired the VCR? And what do you suppose you could store in it, if not VHS tapes? Too shallow for books. Too narrow for the sections of your fly rod, so no-go on the fishing equipment. Hmm. Not to worry. You’ll think of something.

And that’s the point.
If you’re PAYING ATTENTION…

you’ll find that for almost every item originally created for a specific purpose, which it no longer needs to fill, you can think of a way to repurpose or reinvent it to serve another purpose. And as you can see, it’s easy. Actually, it’s a hoot to see what your clever noggin can devise. (I’ll just bet those West Virginia boys had a rip-roaring time converting their pickup to a deer stand.) The quirkier and more specialized the device, the more creative your solution will have to be. 

Next up: Pass it on: share your skills! (If you’re the queen of Repurposing Mavens, that’s a skill others would love for you to share.) 

©2015, Teresa Bennett

red box with white text: "I don't think outside the box; I think of what I can DO with the box." – Anonymous

My artist-husband’s response: “There’s a box?”

What is creativity?

image of brain gears, symbolizing learning creativity

Creativity can be LEARNED – really.

“What is creativity?” is a question that gets a million global Google searches per month, as of this writing. Apparently, a bunch of us are very interested in what it is – or maybe what it is not. We could fill the Pacific with books, speeches, documentaries, blogs, etc., etc., that have been written about creativity – lots of good reading material out there.

But if you don’t consider yourself creative and you wade into some of those books and blogs, be wary. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the details of learning creativity. Some well-meaning writers have made learning creativity into such an intricate, step-by-step project, that we non-creative types are tempted to give up.

We watch in awe as a good friend does a bang-up job of redecorating her great room – on a ridiculously low budget. We enviously observe a co-worker devising a killer app for a niggling little manufacturing problem – on one lunch hour break. When our seemingly nerdy, klutzy neighbor designs and builds a pergola in his backyard, it’s the final straw. We decide they’re creative, and we’re not. End of story. It’s just beyond us.

Get out. It is NOT.

 We’re all creative beings,
by design – ALL of us.

Don’t let the creative gurus scare you. Every time you do something differently than you’ve ever done it before, you’re being creative. Every time you imagine something you’ve never imagined before, you’re being creative – even if that idea never leaves your head. Creativity is simply making something new from something old. Stated that way, learning creativity seems pretty doable, doesn’t it?

Good news: it is. And one of the very best ways to develop creativity is to hang around with – you know where I’m going, don’t you? – creative people. Yes! Watch how their minds work, how their hands work, how THEY work. Then imitate them. That’s it: learn from the creative experts all around you because, honey, you’re gonna need a boatload of creativity.

Every stage of life requires creativity.

If you see yourself as uncreative but long to be creative, you may just want to do cool stuff right now, like that good friend, co-worker, or neighbor. That’s good enough incentive – for now.

Here’s some additional incentive. When I was in my fifties, I began noticing elderly family members struggling with serious health problems and simple, daily-living chores. I was stunned to see that life gets harder and harder as we age, requiring more and more creativity just to deal with it.

What’s coming for us all in our final years will likely be harder than anything we’ve done before. Not what you wanted to hear, was it? I sure didn’t. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that it’s so. Just pay attention to the elderly around you. I hadn’t; that’s why this was all such an unwelcome shock.

Our later years just may make our teens, twenties, and even our thirties look like a fun-filled, nappy day in kindergarten. That’s because we begin losing the very assets and abilities we’ve relied on for so long and have come to think of as permanently ours:

  • a loving – and competent – spouse,
  • bodies that do just about anything we want,
  • going anywhere we choose,
  • hearing everything we need/want to hear,
  • seeing everything we need/want to see,

and on and on it goes.

Creativity begets more creativity.

Practicing creativity now – for the sheer joy and fun of it (or to impress the boss) is great. Do it – because creativity is just like every other life skill: the more you practice it, the better you get. One day, you’ll realize friends are calling you creative and asking for your creative advice.

When this happens, go ahead and revel in the kudos. But after you’ve finished the back-patting, remind yourself that the REAL benefit of your newly cultivated creativity is still to come.

You’ve been paying attention to the creative people around you and practicing one of life’s most important skills/assets/practices/habits that will become invaluable as you age. You’ve embodied what John Cleese– that crazy Monty Python star – observed, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”

One more piece of good news.

Have you noticed The Haves do not have a corner on this market? The rest of us have just as good a shot at becoming creative as they do – because it’s free! It’s something we can:

  • learn from every creative soul we meet,
  • practice our whole lives, and
  • become surprisingly good at by the time we reach our seventies, eighties, and nineties.

Here’s the legendary Steve Jobs’ answer to “what is creativity?” Please leave a comment, telling us your answer.

red box with white text stating what creativity is, according to Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, on “What is creativity?”

© 2013 Teresa Layne Bennett
(Head with gears graphic from For getting Job blog post, titled ” The Difference Between Creativity and Innovation.”)

%d bloggers like this: