Trade Shows Make You More Creative (If They’re Not Your Own Trade)

I’m in Chicago to deliver a keynote tomorrow morning at McCormick Place, the huge convention center on the South Side of Chicago. My event is called “The Collaborative” and is organized by Maritz Travel. I arrived early today, and I discovered that there were several other conferences taking place at this cavernous facility, completely unrelated to my own business and research. But I like to practice what I preach, so I took this as an opportunity: In my new book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity, one of the creativity techniques that I recommend is to attend trade shows that are totally different from your own daily business. So I walked around and asked questions, and I learned all sorts of things that have no obvious benefit to me whatsoever…but paradoxically, these strange bits of information are the secret to creativity.

One show was already open today: It is the American Public Works Association (APWA) annual meeting. The attendees are cities and municipalities, and people that sell products to them. I walked through the vendor exhibition booth, and I saw huge snow removal vehicles, augurs for digging sewer lines, temporary construction barriers, and solid waste disposal technologies. This was very big equipment, and it was fascinating!

Another conference starting in a few days is Print Expo 2013. At the bar, I chatted with a guy who works for one of the largest “finishing” companies in the U.S., Standard of Andover Mass. I learned that “finishing” is anything that happens to paper after it’s already printed–cutting, folding, stamping. I learned so much about how the business has changed in the last ten years. The guys sitting on my other side at the bar were from the APWA conference; they were with a vendor from Minneapolis that sells treated lumber for bridge construction and salt storage. (Salt that’s used to melt icy roads in the winter.)

So what does this have to do with creativity? The research shows that great ideas always come from combining very different areas, professions, and disciplines. And in many cases, new insights come by analogy–when you adapt a solution from one field to a totally different field. Most likely, the things I learned today will never translate directly into a clear creative outcome. But the thing about creativity is, you never know…any one of these conversations, or the ones I might have next month, could spark a new insight that might not happen any other way. Never miss an opportunity to learn something new.

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