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Where Do Ideas Come From?

Where Do Ideas Come From?

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!”

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on March 30, 2020

    What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    What to Do in Free Time? 20 Productive Ways to Use the Time

    If you’ve got a big block of free time, the best way to put that to use is to relax, have fun, decompress from a stressful day, or spend time with a loved one. But if you’ve just got a little chunk — say 5 or 10 minutes — there’s no time to do any of the fun stuff.

    So, what to do in free time?

    Put those little chunks of time to their most productive use.

    Everyone works differently, so the best use of your free time really depends on you, your working style, and what’s on your to-do list. But it’s handy to have a list like this in order to quickly find a way to put that little spare time to work instantly, without any thought. Use the following list as a way to spark ideas for what you can do in a short amount of time.

    1. Reading Files

    Clip magazine articles or print out good articles or reports for reading later, and keep them in a folder marked “Reading File”. Take this wherever you go, and any time you have a little chunk of time, you can knock off items in your Reading File.

    Keep a reading file on your computer (or in your bookmarks), for quick reading while at your desk (or on the road if you’ve got a laptop).

    2. Clear out Inbox

    Got a meeting in 5 minutes? Use it to get your physical or email inbox to empty.

    If you’ve got a lot in your inbox, you’ll have to work quickly, and you may not get everything done; but reducing your pile can be a big help. And having an empty inbox is a wonderful feeling.

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    3. Phone Calls

    Keep a list of phone calls you need to make, with phone numbers, and carry it everywhere.

    Whether you’re at your desk or on the road, you can knock a few calls off your list in a short amount of time.

    4. Make Money

    This is my favorite productive use of free time. I have a list of articles I need to write, and when I get some spare minutes, I’ll knock off half an article real quick.

    If you get 5 to 10 chunks of free time a day, you can make a decent side income. Figure out how you can freelance your skills, and have work lined up that you can knock out quickly — break it up into little chunks, so those chunks can be done in short bursts.

    5. File

    No one likes to do this. If you’re on top of your game, you’re filing stuff immediately, so it doesn’t pile up.

    But if you’ve just come off a really busy spurt, you may have a bunch of documents or files laying around.

    Or maybe you have a big stack of stuff to file. Cut into that stack with every little bit of spare time you get, and soon you’ll be in filing Nirvana.

    6. Network

    Only have 2 minutes? Shoot off a quick email to a colleague. Even just a “touching bases” or follow-up email can do wonders for your working relationship. Or shoot off a quick question, and put it on your follow-up list for later.

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    7. Clear out Feeds

    If my email inbox is empty, and I have some spare time, I like to go to my Google Reader and clear out my feed inbox.

    8. Goal Time

    Take 10 minutes to think about your goals — personal and professional.

    If you don’t have a list of goals, start on one. If you’ve got a list of goals, review them.

    Write down a list of action steps you can take over the next couple of weeks to make these goals a reality. What action step can you do today? The more you focus on these goals, and review them, the more likely they will come true.

    9. Update Finances

    Many people fall behind with their finances, either in paying bills (they don’t have time), or entering transactions in their financial software, or clearing their checkbook, or reviewing their budget.

    Take a few minutes to update these things. It just takes 10 to 15 minutes every now and then.

    10. Brainstorm Ideas

    Another favorite of mine if I just have 5 minutes — I’ll break out my pocket notebook, and start a brainstorming list for a project or article. Whatever you’ve got coming up in your work or personal life, it can benefit from a brainstorm. And that doesn’t take long.

    11. Clear off Desk

    Similar to the filing tip above, but this applies to whatever junk you’ve got cluttering up your desk. Or on the floor around your desk.

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    Trash stuff, file stuff, put it in its place. A clear desk makes for a more productive you. And it’s oddly satisfying.

    12. Exercise

    Never have time to exercise? 10 minutes is enough to get off some pushups and crunches. Do that 2 to 3 times a day, and you’ve got a fit new you.

    13. Take a Walk

    This is another form of exercise that doesn’t take long, and you can do it anywhere. Even more important, it’s a good way to stretch your legs from sitting at your desk too long.

    It also gets your creative juices flowing. If you’re ever stuck for ideas, taking a walk is a good way to get unstuck.

    14. Follow up

    Keep a follow-up list for everything you’re waiting on. Return calls, emails, memos — anything that someone owes you, put on the list.

    When you’ve got a spare 10 minutes, do some follow-up calls or emails.

    15. Meditate

    You don’t need a yoga mat to do this. Just do it at your desk. Focus on your breathing. A quick 5 to 10 minutes of meditation (or even a nap) can be tremendously refreshing.

    Take a look at this 5-Minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime

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    16. Research

    This is a daunting task for me. So I do it in little spurts.

    If I’ve only got a few minutes, I’ll do some quick research and take some notes. Do this a few times, and I’m done!

    17. Outline

    Similar to brainstorming, but more formal. I like to do an outline of a complicated article, report or project, and it helps speed things along when I get to the actual writing. And it only takes a few minutes.

    18. Get Prepped

    Outlining is one way to prep for longer work, but there’s a lot of other ways you can prep for the next task on your list.

    You may not have time to actually start on the task right now, but when you come back from your meeting or lunch, you’ll be all prepped and ready to go.

    19. Be Early

    Got some spare time before a meeting? Show up for the meeting early.

    Sure, you might feel like a chump sitting there alone, but actually people respect those who show up early. It’s better than being late (unless you’re trying to play a power trip or something, but that’s not appreciated in many circles).

    20. Log

    If you keep a log of anything, a few spare minutes is the perfect time to update the log.

    Actually, the perfect time to update the log is right after you do the activity (exercise, eat, crank a widget), but if you didn’t have time to do it before, your 5-minute break is as good a time as any.

    More Inspirations on What To Do During Free Time

    Featured photo credit: Lauren Mancke via unsplash.com

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