The next time you're struggling to solve a creative problem, try solving it for someone else. According to Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, we're more capable of mental novelty when thinking on behalf of strangers than for ourselves. This is just the latest extension of research into construal level theory, an intriguing concept that suggests various aspects of psychological distance can affect our thinking style.
It's been shown, for example, that greater physical and temporal distance lead us to think more abstractly, such that you're more likely to solve a problem if you imagine being confronted by it in a far-off place and/or at a future time (read Jonah Lehrer's take on what this says about the importance of holidays). Now Polman and Emich have shown that social distance can have the same psychological benefit.
This makes sense intuitively (which is always a warning sign: the dangers of being drawn to research that backs up hunches and prejudices are legion). It explains why I can surprise myself with my usefulness at solving problems as a mentor or advisor. The surprise comes from the painful awareness of how useless and ineffectual I am at dealing with my own, similar dilemmas.