Front cover of Conscious Capitalism.

Elastic Thinking 

It’s a rare self-help manual-cum-pop psychology treatise that recommends getting drunk in order to get more done. But Elastic (subtitle: Flexible Thinking in a Time of Change) is no ordinary book, and its author Leonard Mlodinow clearly no two-a-penny snake oil salesman.  

Lauded by everyone from Oxford University’s Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology and author of Mindfulness Mark Williams (“A book of sparkling intelligence”) to Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane (“Mlodinow will make you smarter”) Elastic, and its creator, have set the worlds of neuroscience and psychology alight and enthralled the business world with its advice on approaching executive problems more creatively and abstractly.  

Mlodinow’s an interesting chap: he’s a former Star Trek: The Next Generation screenwriter, a respected theoretical physicist, has created computer games with Steven Spielberg, and was a friend, colleague and co-author of the late Stephen Hawking. According to Mlodinow, it was Hawking’s “elastic thinking” that partly enabled his genius. But, he says, it is in fact an ability that all of us share, and one that we can tap into to succeed in business, play, and in our everyday lives. In fact, he suggests, in an increasingly dynamic and ever-changing world, in which we’re faced with a bewildering and overpowering torrent of information daily, thinking elastically is possibly the best way to adapt and swim with the tide. “We all have to be trouble-shooters if we want to survive or thrive in today’s changing world,” says Mlodinow. “Fortunately it’s a skill that’s built into the human brain.” 

 Elastic thinking differs from traditional analytical thinking in its flexibility. Mlodinow says that millennia ago our brains developed an affinity for exploration, idea generation and novelty (or ‘neophilia’), and that this has been backed up by neuroscience. It’s this kind of flexible (or ‘elastic’) thought process, driven by the imagination and divergent thinking, rather than logical and linear thought, that has allowed some of history’s greatest and most innovators writers and artists to create astounding cultural and creative leaps. “Logical analytical thinking is really good when you are trying to solve a problem you’ve seen before,” Mlodinow recently explained at London’s Royal Society of Arts. “You can use known methods and techniques to approach whatever issue you are dealing with. Elastic thinking is what you need when the circumstances change and you are dealing with something new. It’s not about following rules.” 

One example he gives of elastic thinking in his book is how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati, while attempting to come up with a winning ghost story following a bet. During the night she let her mind relax and roam free, tapping her subconscious to bring to life her remarkable story. Meanwhile, Leonardo da Vinci would apparently take very long ‘tea breaks’ while working on The Last Supper to give his extraordinary polymath’s mind a chance to rejuvenate. More recently, companies such as Google and Pokemon Go have adopted elastic thinking, and it’s clear to see its influence on tech start-ups, especially, with their sleep pods and couches – ideal for daydreaming on and coming up with original ideas. “Incubating” as Mlodinow says. 

Of course, as Mlodinow admits, it’s all a bit of a juggling act: too much analytical thinking stunts creativity. But too much the other way “and you have no executive function of your brain ordering your thoughts, you will end up non-functional… the ideas will come so fast and so disconnected you can never get anything done.” As with so many things in life, balance is best. Ali Catterall  

• Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World is published by Allen Lane