There may be no two words in the English language that, when put together, strike fear in my heart quite like:
Upon the utterance of such a phrase, which implies that I need to somehow instantaneously create or invent not one, but a plethora of ideas – good, bad, and “interesting” – quickly, out loud and in a group, no less… well it’s enough to make my poor, introverted brain explode.
While some people seem to make ideas fall like rain on your wedding day, for me, brainstorming sessions tend to end up like a braindrought. In order to think of something good, I need time, space, and deadlines. But somehow, two days or even two hours later, I will arrive with a slew of possible options, ready to discuss.
This left me wondering… what happens in that time? Why is it that, at least for me, I can go days without a flicker of creativity, and then get bombarded by a herd of butwhatifyoudidthis?’s in a single afternoon? To what do I owe that spark of inspiration? That flurry of motion and subsequent action that I associate with putting ideas into real, tangible things?
As a quick Google search confirmed, many people with lots of letters after their names have looked into these precise questions. In fact, I’ve become recently intrigued with Adam Grant’s TED Talk about what originals do differently (Spoiler alert: It’s a three-pronged answer that happens to support the speaker’s book – TED, you’ve done it again!).
So, I’ll leave you to do your own academic probing of the topic elsewhere. What I’d like to share today is not some hard, scientific research about creativity and idea generation. Instead, I’m here to tell you about the creative process of someone I know very well, someone who I can confidently say has taken home a medal for a writing competition once (cough-itwasinmiddleschool-cough-itwasfortwelfthplace-cough-definitelyamillenial), and to whom at least three people have said her blog was well-written (at least two of those were not her mom!).
So, how do I (the aforementioned she) generate new ideas? Well, it just happens to be a clear-cut, three-step process…
- Expose Yourself … To New Things
As neuroscientists very unlike myself have proven, good things happen when you present your brain with new things. Be that learning a foreign language, traveling, or reading your neighbor’s mail.
This is to say, if you are the kind of person who may or may not know your barista by name (and he may or may not have your order memorized and actually spells your name correctly on the cup), you might want to consider giving you and Tony from the corner Starbucks a rest.
Opening yourself up to novel experiences can spark a lot of brain juice movement. How can you do this? Remember, we live in the height of the information age, with the world at our fingertips. You have no excuses.
Thanks to my bustling schedule and the nature of my job as an ESL instructor, for me this often includes watching a lot of TED talks. While I’ve come to despise the color red, and I’m starting to think that just about anyone is qualified to babble on a crimson rug, there does tend to be a common thread that runs through most of them: passion (more on this later). And anytime you can get absorbed in a slightly off-kilter fanatic going on about what they think the world needs, you’re bound to form a reaction, one way or another.
But this is just one way to get your brain’s transmitters a-flowin’. Here are just a few more examples of things I’ve done in the name of getting good ideas:
- Run or Bike to Unknown Places: Exercise in general does wonders. Here are scientists who say so. Also, relaxing activities like the shower you take afterward can generate unexpected lightbulb moments.
- Download New Podcasts: Based on who I imagine you are, reader, I’m willing to wager that you already listen to NPR or have some podcasts of choice. Well, I dare you to branch out… and I promise there’s more out there than just Serial.
- Read a Damn Book: I know, I know, you’re sooo busy and who has time to read? Get an Audible subscription, or carve out 15 minutes before bed. You’ll thank me for it.
- Use Netflix as a Force for Good: Just switch off House of Cards for like 30 minutes, ok? The Flix also has a documentary section! I personally recommend Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Cosmos in case you like the idea of writing “dabbles in astrophysics” on your dating profile and want great analogies for scientific phenomena.
- Take a Facebook Break: Or you know, whatever the kids are using now. Remember that in the olden days (like in 2006, when we couldn’t afford internet on our phones), people ended up being bored here and there. Force yourself to be alone with your thoughts for a bit–and not swap faces with the lady on the Sun-Maid raisin box.
All of the above have helped me go from idea desert to oasis. But once you have some idea nuggets, you have to do something with them. Which brings us to…
- Talk to People Who Kind of Annoy You
This idea may not sound like the most fun. But let me explain.
As I mentioned above, hearing from passionate people is a foolproof way to introduce yourself to ideas you either haven’t considered before, or have a strong feeling about, one way or the other.
This means that said people might not be your best buds. It might be Carl, the coworker who always seems to be eating lunch alone at his desk, or Jade, your next-door neighbor with the questionable scents coming from inside her apartment.
Once you strike up a conversation, you might find yourself in the throes of a topic you never even knew people cared about. People who collect those soda cans with the names on them or who have seen every episode of Wheel of Fortune, or who enjoy bird watching instead of partying.
They might be die hard supporters of the opposing political candidate or be running for office themselves. Perhaps they write poetry that they leave on park benches or have a YouTube channel dedicated to the finer points of chair construction. It could be weird and random, their thing, but if they love it, they’ll tell you about it.
Why does this matter? Why does chatting with some half-stranger about their passions make you more creative? Two reasons:
One, it opens you up to something new, which as we know, is a creativity booster. For a small amount of time, you can see the world through the eyes of a novice violinist or a fervent believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Looking at the world in a different way makes you consider pieces of it that perhaps you never noticed.
Secondly, it gives you the opportunity to share your ideas with a new brain. Maybe all your friends gave your business idea the thumbs up because they were tired of hearing about it, but Zach, Settler of Catan tournament fame, thinks it’s a little risky, based on his knowledge of the demographic you’re trying to reach.
Or maybe Alice, the psychologist, probes a little deeper into your intentions behind the effort. Or Gene the mailman thinks you should scale back your efforts to a more reasonable number, based on the amount of bills he sees coming your way.
Point being, interactions between ideas, and between people, can serve as the flame to ignite the spark you started in step one. Now, you feel it. Your brain is buzzing. So that leaves you with the next and final step into idea creation station.
- Come to the Dark Side (Data is your Friend, I Promise)
There’s an axiom among the younger generation, stating that if something is not documented on social media, it did not happen. As a 1984 lover and fervent government distrust enthusiast, I might be someone you would expect to disagree with this statement.
While I maintain my watchful eye on Big Data’s influence on our world, I must admit I am a lover of personal data tracking. I get joy out of calendars, reminders, spreadsheets and word clouds. I have spent hours logging lists of inane items, from the titles of all books on my bookshelf to items I have saved on Facebook. Excel and I have rendezvoused to create decision matrices that I can only share with the nerdiest of friends.
This is to say, that after all of the legwork you’ve put in to get ideas, it’s absolutely key that you store them. In a notebook, on an iPhone, tagged in Evernote, across a napkin, as a tattoo, in the sky… you get the idea. Nothing irritates me more than when a person, when asked where their ideas are kept, haughtily tap their temples with two fingers and say “It’s all up here.”
Why is it worth taking the time to collect your ideas in a meaningful way?
The most obvious reason is that it actually frees up space in your brain. Much like the hard drive that we have overloaded with high resolution versions of yesterday’s lunch and bootlegged copies of Insanity workout videos we’ve never opened, our brain gets clogged.
Good ideas can only hang out for so long in your short-term memory. Record that gift or lose it forever.
Apart from this, keeping an idea log allows you to see changes, progressions and trends. You can see where ideas began to form, how they might connect to other ideas, and other directions or possibilities for the ideas you already have. Have you predicted what happens next?
Yes, you are correct–tracking your ideas actually gives you more ideas. The more you recognize the themes, patterns, and evolutions of your thoughts, the more you can spur new ones. These a-ha’s can be encapsulated in stream of consciousness talk-alouds, mind maps or other imaginative exercises. Use this space as the incubator for your imagination.
So, you think you’ve come to the end.
That’s it, right?
As you may have anticipated, this idea generation process is not so simple–it is more like the conveyor belts in a Tokyo mailroom.
Some are moving forward, but might end up cycling back around for another go. Or maybe they connect to other belts that go to unknown places. Maybe they end up breaking down to an unexpected glitch. They are not part of a 1-2-3 process. And luckily, neither is your brain. Did you get a good idea yet? If not, go make one.