How Mindfulness Rewires Your Brain to Be More Innovative

Guest post
from Matt Tenney

There is much debate over the question of whether innovative people are born as
innovators, or if innovation is something that is trainable. I’m convinced that
we can actually change our brains in ways that help us to be more innovative,
and that a simple practice called mindfulness can help us do exactly that.

The Key Traits of an Innovator

One important element of understanding the key traits of an innovator is
realizing that an innovator may not necessarily be the “creative
type.” Although many people use the words creative and innovative as
synonyms, the two are actually quite distinct. Creativity simply refers to the
generation of new ideas. An innovation is something that actually disrupts the
status quo. It is an idea that has been turned into a reality that is somehow
disrupting other current realities.

With this understanding, we see that a person doesn’t need to be creative
to be an innovator. An innovator could take an idea that someone else had, but
decided not to act on, and make the effort to transform that idea into a
reality that disrupts the status quo. A well-known example of this is Bill
Gates. Gates didn’t create disk operating system (DOS). He bought it from the
people who created it and then applied their idea to bring Microsoft software
to market.

Thus, a good working definition of an innovator is “a person who is
able to bring to reality a useful idea that actually disrupts the status
quo.” This definition makes it much easier to define the characteristics
of a successful innovator. We simply need to ask, “What type of person is
most likely to bring to reality a useful idea that actually disrupts the status

Two key traits of a person who can innovate according to the definition
above are:

  • Empathy
  • Willingness
    to disrupt the status quo

Empathy is important for two reasons. First, understanding the needs of
others helps determine whether or not an idea will be useful and worth the
energy to develop. Second, understanding the needs of the team members with
whom we work is essential for advancing an idea, and may even be the most
important factor for advancing an idea within an organization.

Assuming an idea would be useful to others, we must be willing to
challenge the status quo and stick with that idea despite initial opposition.
According to the fascinating research of Dr. Prince of the Perth Leadership Institute, the reason most people don’t
innovate is that they are subject to a cognitive bias known as the status quo bias. As you would likely intuit, a person with
a strong status quo bias is very unlikely to challenge the status quo. They
feel very uncomfortable rocking the proverbial boat. Thus, one important
element of being an innovator is being free from the effects of the status quo

How Mindfulness Changes the Brain for Innovation

Neuroscientists have discovered that when we make the shift to being
mindful, we actually change the active neural networks in the brain, moving away
from the default mode network, which is associated with habitual,
self-referential thought patterns. This shift away from habitual thinking is
what frees us up from the constraints of cognitive biases, like the status quo

When we are mindfully aware of our thought patterns, we’re more likely to
see, right in the present moment, our habitual ways of acting and deciding,
which allows us to do something different. For instance, we might notice a
tendency to shy away from challenging the status quo and instead take action on
a disruptive idea.

Research in behavioral science has shown that a small
amount of mindfulness training improves empathy. Neuroscience research conducted at Harvard showed that
people who trained in mindfulness for eight weeks actually changed the physical
structure of their brains in areas associated with self-awareness and empathy.

You Can Begin Practicing Without Adding to Your Schedule

Being mindful simply means that we shift from being caught up in thinking
to being aware of thinking. Most of us are already doing this many times each
day. We just don’t often do it intentionally, and we don’t sustain it for very

Practicing mindfulness means that we intentionally become mindful and
practice sustaining it for longer periods of time. We don’t have to add
anything to our schedules to do this. It’s something we can practice during
almost any of our daily activities. When done in mindfulness, even something as
simple as brushing our teeth can become an opportunity to rewire our brains to
be more innovative.

Author Bio:
Matt Tenney is the author of The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for
Leadership and Personal Excellence Without Adding to Your Schedule
Through keynote speeches and training programs, he works to develop highly
effective leaders who achieve extraordinary, long-term business outcomes
and live more fulfilling lives — as a result of realizing high levels of
self-mastery and more effectively serving and inspiring greatness in the people
around them. Matt’s clients include Wells Fargo, Marriott, Keller Williams, The
Four Seasons, and many other companies, associations, and universities. Follow
the author on Twitter.