Some people have a knack for creativity. They spark ideas all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not me.
I keep running lists on my iPhone, on Google Drive, in journals, and on fluorescent Post-it Notes to capture ideas for my business, my family -- and even this column. And for some bizarre reason the best ideas pop into my head while I'm drying my hair, applying makeup, driving, or exercising.
It turns out that actually, there’s a reason fabulous ideas bubble up at odd times. Brain Pickings blogger Maria Popova drew my attention to a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas, written in 1939 by ad man James Webb Young. Young describes the generation of ideas to be quite methodical, a “productive creative process,” not unlike the production of cars on an assembly line.
Even though his ideas are more than 70 years old, they are still relevant today. Best: They really do work.
Step 1: Gathering Raw Material
Always be on the lookout for interesting material and capture it however you can, whenever you see it. “Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds,” says Young. “Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.” Rip out that article, email it to yourself, jot something down in your iPhone Notes app, use Evernote. You never know what you might do with that raw material later. Some of my most creative business ideas came from magazines I would never buy, but picked up while waiting in a doctor’s office.
Step 2: Digesting the Material
Young says, “This part of the process is harder to describe in concrete terms because it goes on entirely inside your head.” Look at the material you’ve collected from time to time. Old articles suddenly resonate in a fresh new way because I’m in a different place in my life. Bam! Now that wrinkled leadership article about Warren Buffett I tore out while on vacation jumps off the page. Regardless of how crazy they seem, I jot down ideas as they come to me, usually on Post-its.
Step 3: Unconscious Processing
“When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story,” Young says. I’m solar-powered, so a change of scenery with streaming sunshine always helps, like a window seat at a coffee shop. My mind clears to make way for something new.
Step 4: The A-ha! Moment
“Out of nowhere the Idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it.” Ahh, like my bathroom in the morning. If I don’t have my phone nearby to capture that flash of brilliance, it will be gone before my mascara dries. Again, I’ll jot a note or create a voice memo to quickly capture the idea, with enough info to remind me how to rekindle the spark later.
Step 5: Idea Meets Reality
Then, when you collaborate with others, Young says, “You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.” And this is where your simple idea can become great: when you share it with others.
Entrepreneurs and leaders turn sparks into bonfires. Take chances. Be bold. Change the world. Think of the potential impact if you generate fresh ideas, nurture them, look at them from different angles, and, most importantly, share them with others.