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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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