Where Do Ideas Come From?

Since publishing a series of posts on dating and living in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked several times how I came up with the idea to see dating as a kind of metaphor for life. The immediate source of the story was pretty mundane – someone asked me a question about another article and I used going on a date as an example to illustrate my answer, and thought “hey, there might be something to this more generally!”

But the response to those stories has gotten me thinking about ideas and creativity more generally. Writers are asked all the time about where we get our ideas. So are musicians, painters, actors, designers, and other creative people. It’s a source of fascination for many, who perhaps see in the talent of others something they feel is missing from themselves.

Interestingly, most of the creative people I know don’t see their creative impulses as particularly exclusive. What separates the creative from the not-so-creative isn’t so much the ability to come up with ideas but the ability to trust them, or to trust ourselves to realize them. That trust lies at least in part in knowing we have the skills to bring forth a finished product from an initial idea, which is why so many creative people tend to take a craftsman’s (or woman’s) approach towards their work (and resent those who squander their ideas by refusing to do the groundwork needed to make them real), but skill is only part of it. There are plenty of skilled but not-particularly-creative people – hacks – in every field. What separates the creative from the not-so-creative is the willingness to take risks with ideas, to push both the idea and the self beyond the safe and comfortable.

There are two schools of thought about where ideas come from. One is the “artist as antenna” concept, in which ideas float in some barely perceptible aether waiting for someone to pick them up, the way a radio picks up a song when it’s tuned to just the right frequency. This is Keith Richards waking up in the middle of the night with the main riff from “Satisfaction” fully-formed in his head.

The second school holds that ideas are the product of hard work and thoughtful concentration. “It’s just work,” says Andy Warhol to Lou Reed about songwriting in Reed’s album, with John Cale, Songs for Drella. Sit down with a pad and pencil and think, and don’t get up until you have something! This school is the writer grinding out his or her 4 pages a day, the mad poet storming up and down the street in search of the perfect word to express exactly what s/he’s feeling, and the designer who sits down with a brief and just starts working.

The reality is probably somewhere in the middle – we get ideas from within ourselves and from without, or more to the point, from the interaction of the two. It is in the active engagement of the artist with his or her world, through preparation, conscious attention, curiosity, effort, and a dash of serendipity, that ideas are born:

  • Preparation: Ideas come to those who are prepared to receive them, whatever the origin. Scientists have ideas about science, not poetry – unless they have also practiced at the craft of poetry. And vice-versa – it’s the rare poet who is struck by an idea that advances our understanding of molecular biology. Skillful musicians have ideas that translate into beautiful songs, and skillful writers create daring novels that illuminate our lives. Those who haven’t prepared themselves to be creative rarely are.
  • Attention: Paying attention to the world around us – whether the immediate activities of people in our vicinity or the distant events reported through the media, or anywhere in between – is one source of ideas. You’ve heard the saying that “necessity is the other of invention” but it also takes someone paying close enough attention to recognize that need in the first place.
  • Curiosity: Creativity often comes from the drive to understand and take things apart, literally or figuratively. It stems from the desire to know “what if…” and to follow that question until it gets somewhere interesting.
  • Effort: Whether you’re the antenna or the bricklayer, creativity takes a commitment to work. “Ideas are cheap,” the saying goes. “Execution is hard.” Ideas need to be captured, given attention, followed up on, and committed to a plan of action, or they disappear back to wherever they came – whether “out there” or deep in your unconscious mind. And they rarely come back.
  • Serendipity: Serendipity is two things. First, it’s the luck to be at the right place at the right time, to be Newton at exactly the moment the apple falls from the tree. The second is the openness to making connections between unrelated things or events – to see in a bathtub a lesson about physics, or to see in a date a lesson about life.

These elements of creativity all play together, of course. How many millions of baths were taken before Archimedes had his “Eureka!” moment? Yet it was Archimedes who was prepared to understand what it meant when he climbed into his bath and saw the water level rise, Archimedes who paid attention to what he saw, Archimedes who was curious enough to wonder what was happening, Archimedes who was willing to do the follow-up work to translate his experience into a general principle about volume and displacement, and Archimedes who just happened to bring all this with him into the bath on that fateful day.

The thing is, these are all things each and every one of us can cultivate in her or his own life. They aren’t God-given gifts reserved to the few. And they apply well beyond the world of the arts – marketers, parents, teachers, factory workers, salespersons, electricians, computer programmers, and just about everyone else face situations that call for creative responses, though we often miss them for lack of preparation, attention, curiosity, effort, or serendipity. Start making a conscious effort to develop these elements, though, and I bet you’ll start engaging with your world more creatively in short order.

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