How thinking out of the box could unlock your story's gold

It was while at lunch on the second day of my visit to Namibia that I had the revelation.

It changed the way I think and made me a more determined and resourceful writer.

Let’s back up a moment, a little context.

A Revelation In Namibia

A few years back I was in Namibia as a member of an academic health delegation.

Namibia is a beautiful country with a vast and confronting geography, its population dispersed over enormous distances.

Healthcare delivery in such an environment is immensely challenging.

My host organised lunch for us in a hotel on the edge of Windhoek, the capital city.

The hotel was quiet, and we sat by a window which looked out onto a crisp, green lawn that bordered the arid bush.

Beyond the fence, miles of desolate terrain swept far into the distance where it rose to meet the blur of the Eros mountains.

He told me about his childhood, growing up in a community with no written language.

There were vivid encounters with big game including the death of a close friend in the jaws of a hippo.

He excelled at school and had since travelled a great distance, metaphorically and geographically from those early memories.

He was an enthralling raconteur, and a deep and contagious laughter frequently interrupted his stories.

He was Dean of the Medical School, a Professor of Medicine and an altogether outstanding human being.

The revelation came with coffee.

A Writer Must Expect The Unexpected

When you’re writing a novel, you learn to expect the unexpected.

It seems odd that something which you carefully plotted has the facility to surprise.

But it does.

Sometimes a character’s responsible. 

They do or say something you aren’t expecting. The story lurches off in a new direction and you’re left on the platform waving forlornly as your story train disappears from view.

Other times it’s the plot itself. What seemed so plausible in outline, turns to dust as you explore the detail as you write.

One of the hardest writing dilemmas is when you realise that several weeks of effort and many thousands of words have been for nothing.

I find such moments hard to take. 

The problem is that my confidence as an author bruises easily.

It’s odd because my work persona is far more robust. As a CEO, I take the hits, shrug them off and keep going. It is so unlike my meek and oh so delicate writing persona.

I’ve started to wonder why.

What would happen, I ask myself, if I took that work persona and injected him into my creative work?

That’s when what my Namibian friend said came back to me.

A Lack Of Alternatives Drives Innovation

We were discussing innovation in healthcare. It’s been a passion of mine throughout my career.

There was an amazing moment the day before which sparked our conversation.

Namibia is a wonderful and beautiful nation. It is peaceful and Namibians are warm and generous hosts.

Namibia is not however, a rich country and modern healthcare is an expensive business.

Devices designed and built for use on patients have to meet an appropriately high quality bar.

No one wants medical devices to fail.

Unfortunately, this means that medical products attract a premium price. Which leaves Namibia with the dilemma of how to afford medical supplies for its population.

Just the previous day, we had witnessed a surprising and highly innovative response to this challenge.

A design team from the UK had developed a novel trauma kit. That’s the kit the paramedics use when attending a road traffic accident.

Stretcher, laryngeal tube, cervical collar and so on.

A traditional kit costs thousands of UK pounds. The designers had created a kit that cost less than $100.

Made from cardboard and canvas. Highly portable and sufficiently low cost to be a realistic proposition for the cash-strapped Namibian health service.

Watching the demonstration we saw that it worked perfectly too. In fact, so well that one UK paramedic organisation was assessing whether it should adopt it.

Brilliant.

As we reflected on the ingenuity of that solution, my friend the professor took a sip of water. He looked at me and then said kindly that his experience of life in rural Africa told him life often boiled down to stark choices. If you lack alternatives he told me, you must improvise.

It is a philosophy he summarised like this:

When there is no bridge, make a canoe.

That is surely the most sound advice. 

It is after all the goal that matters  —  getting to the other side of the river.

Everything else is secondary.

As a CEO, I have often thought about that conversation. I imagine a fast-flowing river, a woman, pregnant and desperate to get to the clinic on the other side.

The only thing that matters is to get her safely across. 

No bridge? No problem.

All it requires is an open mindset. 

Rather than scouting for a bridge which may be many miles away, you find a suitable piece of timber and work it with whatever tools are on hand. Then you push it into the torrent and paddle to the other side.

Last Word

As a writer, I am slowly learning how to deal with setbacks. Each one hits hard, but I’m getting better at bouncing back.

One big lesson I’ve learnt is that I no longer feel I must aim for perfection in my storytelling. 
My writing only has to be good enough to get my story told.

I’ve learnt that it’s the goal that matters.

If I keep writing I’ll reach the end of my story, eventually. If there are false turns or blind alleys ahead, it just means I have to find a different way to get my story told.

That’s when it helps to remember when there’s isn’t a bridge, you can always make a canoe.

How do you maintain an open mind?

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