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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 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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