While studying engineering and product design at Stanford University, Debbie Sterling was in the minority: The department was largely a boys’ club. Several years after graduating, during a conversation with a friend, Sterling started wondering if toys had anything to do with the large disparity. Were kids’ toys discouraging girls from pursuing certain careers, like engineering? 

This prompted her to research the toy industry. She learned that construction toys, which help to develop spatial skills, are solely marketed to boys. While conducting observational interviews with girls, she also noticed that girls became bored with traditional construction toys. When she asked about their favorite toy, girls often handed Sterling a book.

This inspired Sterling to combine stories (capitalizing on girls’ strong verbal skills) with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) principles. And GoldieBlox toys were born. GoldieBlox is a girl engineer who goes on adventures and solves problems by building different machines—which girls build, too.

By adding storytelling to construction toys, Sterling noticed something others didn’t see, according to author and business adviser Bernadette Jiwa in the wonderful new book Hunch: Turn Your Everyday Insights into the Next Big Thing. “That knowledge had been hidden right under the noses of the toy industry for years and yet it took a novice to uncover and act on it,” Jiwa writes.

We miss many things. All the time. We miss things that are right in front of our eyes simply because we’re focused elsewhere. Simply because we don’t use our senses, or we’re glued to our phones.

In Hunch, Jiwa includes excellent, practical prompts to help readers come up with breakthrough ideas. Below are three prompts from the book to help you pay attention to what others usually don’t. These exercises are helpful whether you’re a writer, designer, teacher or hold any other position. Because creativity, curiosity and innovation are always vital—whatever your profession or passion.

  • Observe your surroundings. Spend 15 minutes somewhere people are waiting or lining up—like a café, park or airport lounge. Describe who, what, where or when. List the things that people are doing when they think no one is watching them (e.g., scrolling through their Facebook feed). Next ask yourself: What behaviors and emotions did I observe? What patterns did I notice? How does the environment change the behavior? Then write down one sentence about your most significant insight.
  • Notice others’ frustrations. Pay attention to what people struggle to do. This might be anything from carrying shopping bags to opening a jar to finding an item at the store. Next, reflecting on these frustrations, consider which problem you’d like to fix—and why. Then, come up with a creative solution.
  • Take apart an experience. Think of an experience that you have regularly (e.g., going to the dentist). Then break it down into parts. Draw a box for each part: Arrival, Waiting, Communication, Treatment, Payment, Aftercare, Rebooking. Reflect on what went well and what didn’t live up to expectations. List where the experience fell short. What parts were disappointing? What essential change would you make? Why did you pick this change to make? What lessons can you learn or incorporate into your own work?

By noticing something an entire industry missed, Debbie Sterling is inspiring and empowering generations of girls to explore, to invent, to build, to consider careers they never would’ve considered.

What can you notice today that can spark an insight, that can become a creative solution, that can become a big help to a group of people?

Photo by Darren Bockman.