Innovations are the unique and useful outcomes of the process of creativity.

Creativity begins with the spark of curiosity.

This spark can be fanned through interests, then passion, and then eventually into expertise. Expertise, a deep knowledge and set of skills, is the foundation of creative thinking. Expertise is developed over many years through inbox thinking. Inbox thinking is a deep processing mode that uses the skills of memorization, comprehension, and application.

Using this expertise and outbox imagination, unique ideas that leap beyond the current knowledge base are developed. Outbox imagination is a broad processing mode that uses the skills of fluency, flexibility, and originality. Without outbox imagination, an expert can only reinvent the wheel. With outbox imagination, an expert becomes an innovator who can combine the wheel with something else, or extend the wheel or its use, to produce something new and exciting.

Emerging ideas must be carefully examined for their usefulness through critical thinking. Critical thinking is a deeper processing mode that uses the skills of analysis and evaluation.

Selected ideas must then be combined and refined through newbox connections.  Newbox connections are connecting-dot processing modes between critical thinking and outbox imagination, which use the skills of synthesis and refinement. Newbox connections lead to an innovation that ranges from small i (personal level) to Big I (global level) that can change your life and/or others’ lives.

Thus, developing your inbox, outbox, and newbox (ION) thinking should be the ultimate goal of education.

Why Do We Struggle to Find Our Passion?

Uniqueness, in addition to usefulness, is necessary for innovation. However, as the U.S. education system has become increasingly obsessed with testing and focused on rote learning since the 1990s, students have been trained to refrain from thinking differently and generating unique ideas. Test-centric education promotes test scores as the priority, which fosters competition instead of collaboration. Students are ranked against each other, so they cannot afford to share ideas and blend efforts. Schools have begun to resemble battlefields where students vie for success at the cost of their peers, rather than places to cultivate and expand ideas and enthusiasm for learning. If you are interested in living your own purpose, rather than doing what school tells you to do, you should consider these four major steps:

  1. Find your interests.
  2. Develop your interests into passion.
  3. Engage outbox imagination.
  4. Build newbox connections.

Step I: Find Your Interests

First, look outside school:

In test-centric education you know neither what you are interested in nor what else you can do. If you look outside of school, you can find opportunities that will light your curiosities and tap into your interests. These interests will separate you from others and set you on the path to unlocking who you are. Finding your own interests will also cut down on in-school competition and provide more options for success. If you want to find diverse opportunities outside school, you might ask yourself:

  • What extracurricular activities have attracted me?
  • Where can I find resources outside of school to further my understanding of these activities or to introduce me to new potential interests?

Second, examine how you spend your time:

Even if you feel lost in the search for purpose, you actually have an interest that you are not aware of. If you examine the topics, activities, or ideas that dominate a significant amount of your free time, conversations, and web browsing, you might find your hidden interests. Identify things you usually do by asking yourself:

  • What activity am I immersed in when I lose track of time?
  • What activity do I hate stopping?

Counter-argue to find what you love to do by asking yourself:

  • Do I do this because I want to please someone else?
  • What do I dislike doing?

Third, identify what comes easily to you:

What you do in your everyday life with ease is likely connected to what you are interested in doing. The things you naturally do without conscious pursuit are clues about where you excel. Identify the tasks that friends, colleagues, and family ask you to do as a favor. These favors are likely indicative of your strengths, even if you don’t recognize it yourself. It is common to undervalue your own talents. Identify all the big and little things that come naturally to you and build on your strengths by asking yourself:

  • What is something that I can teach others to do?
  • What types of things do close friends, colleagues, or family usually seek my input on?

If you can’t find one thing you can do with ease, you might find several things you can do with some effort. Combine these things together in unique ways and develop them into something far greater. Identify things that you can do with some effort by asking yourself:

  • When I receive positive feedback, what areas or skills are mentioned?
  • What have been the best experiences in my life, and what do they have in common?

Fourth, look to your past:

When you were younger, you likely had some dream or were open to possibilities about what you could do or become. Returning to that dream, even if it seems unrealistic, brings to mind your child-like wonder and playful sense of adventure, and will help you find your interests. Ask yourself:

  • What activities bring me back to my childhood?

Remember things, activities, and interests from childhood before others started telling you what to do by asking yourself:

  • What games, books, or habits did I enjoy before I thought about the judgements of others?
  • What dreams have I given up on?

Step II: Develop Your Interests into Passion

First, pursue mastery:

Many people confuse greatly enjoying something with feeling passionate about it. But true passion comes with time, effort, and mastery. When you feel you have begun to master something, your enthusiasm intensifies, which makes you come back for more. This ensures you concentrate your efforts on the most rewarding things, thereby improving your skills and enhancing your strengths. Passion inspires your will to fight and work for something.

Second, set and remember goals:

Nobody can control the future, but you can control yourself and your goals. You must break patterns of non-productive thinking by replacing self-dialogue like “I am not sure I can” with “I can do this.” You must identify the outcomes that you want to avoid first, then eliminate negative statements, and finally set your goals using the positive statements and specifically defining what you do want.

Another way you can pursue your goals is by studying role models who have been successful in your chosen field. List the people you respect or envy, then learn about their work and how and why they were able to achieve success. Then, emulate them through setting small and big goals.

As it is easy for you to lose track of big goals in the web of your daily obligations, you should actively and mindfully track your progress. You should find ways to incorporate your big goals into your everyday activities and make time to take small steps. Enlist support on your journey by finding partners or mentors who can hold you accountable and work alongside you. Use reminders of your big goal such as notes, images, and other inspirations that reinforce your goal or excite you during difficult moments.

Step III: Engage Outbox Imagination

Exceptionally successful people in history were obsessed with solving a problem or improving something in their field. Do this by asking:

  • What has frustrated me?
  • Does the root of that frustration lie with me or some gap of knowledge in the wider world?

A problem does not have to be big. Simply finding one little thing a day to be curious about can lead you to your next big goals. Once you identify a problem or gap, you must generate as many unique ideas as possible to solve the problem or fill the gap. Until achieving a certain number of ideas, avoid judging your ideas and, instead, focus on encouraging the free flow of your thoughts. Develop unique solutions by challenging yourself every day, such as experimenting with new activities, exploring all possibilities, and overcoming the fear of making mistakes, rejection, or failure.

Step IV: Build Newbox Connections

After testing the practicality of those unique ideas using certain criteria, combine the most unique and useful elements of the ideas. Restructure and synthesize the selected solutions into one solid choice, and then continue to improve that selection through the refining process of working on details first and then pursuing simplicity. Unessential elements should be eliminated through repeatedly elaborating and trimming over a long period.


Follow these four steps, even amidst test-centric education, to find your interests, develop them into your passion, engage outbox imagination, and build new box connections. Applying ION thinking skills to your daily life is what creativity and innovation are all about.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Dr. KH Kim is Professor of Creativity & Innovation at the College of William & Mary. After being an English teacher in Korea for ten years and upon getting her PhD from the University of Georgia, she taught there and then at Eastern Michigan University. She has dedicated her career to researching creativity and innovators. Her research study titled "The Creativity Crisis" was the subject of a 2010 Newsweek cover story that captured the world’s attention. Frequently sought after by the media, she has shared her expertise with numerous outlets including New York Times, Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, and others. She is the author of The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation and has won the Early Scholar Award and the Hollingworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children, the Berlyne Award from the American Psychology Association, as well as the Torrance Award from the American Creativity Association.