Our society really values and focuses on improving vertical thinking. We believe that adequate training on specific techniques and systems will produce a talented engineer, lawyer, or doctor.
But when it comes to professions that rely on creative, generative, lateral skills, we tend to assume that only those born with innate talent can excel in them. Even when it comes to the more vertically minded professions like engineering, creativity is seen as a desirable bonus that great engineers are born with.
Psychologist Edward de Bono, who developed the concept of lateral thinking, argued that the brain thinks in two stages: The first is a perceiving stage, where the brain chooses to frame its environment in a certain way, identifying a particular pattern.
The second stage uses that pattern, that particular way of looking at the environment, and builds upon it to reach a conclusion.
No matter how effective we are at the vertical thinking of the second stage, better vertical thinking can never correct errors that have arisen in the first stage. In order to more accurately perceive patterns in our environment, we have to develop our lateral thinking skills.
In the video below, author David Epstein illustrates this principal through the case of Japanese repairman Gunpei Yokoi, who wasn’t a particularly gifted engineer, but he perceived his environment in a way that his more talented and specialized peers were not able to.