I've got a messy desk. To my right is the book I'm reading,  Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life, by Peter Himmelman. (We'll get back to that in a moment). In front of me is a pile of flipchart pages from a workshop I facilitated about newsletters. And on the corner sits a stack of articles I've clipped on a wide range of topics--from the oldest known drawing by a human, to fashion that looks like costume, to an obituary about the woman who invented the green bean casserole.

Chaos? Sure, but I'm also using a method of inspiration that Himmelman calls "Totally Legal Inspiring Thievery." He should know: After a successful career as a musician, Himmelman founded Big Muse, a company that teaches creative thinking, leadership skills and communication. 

So he's thought a lot about how to help people unlock creativity and innovation. And Himmelman has learned that the traditional concept of developing a big idea--standing in front of a blank canvas or a keyboard until a brilliant notion strikes you--doesn't really work.

"From a neurological point of view," Himmelman writes, "the brain is more of a filter, or sieve, than an open door. One of the brain's main functions is to be selective about where we focus our attention. Because the brain blocks out so much input, there is always much more sensory input left behind than absorbed."

That's why "waiting for inspiration assures you only of the fact that you will likely wait forever," Himmelman writes.

As a result, in order to come up with ideas or be creativity, "we need a method to decrease the excessive activity of the filtration system that the brain provides us with."

Here's one simple technique he suggests: If you're sitting at your computer trying to write something but you're blocked, focus on things that your brain is currently filtering out, like the sound of the rain outside. The smell of coffee in your cup. A glint of sunlight hitting your deck from a nearby window.

"It's not that there needs to be any direct correlation to what you're working on," Himmelman writes. "What is important that for a fleeting moment, by noticing the things your brain has filtered out, you allow it to relax its propensity to stop the flow of information." That way, your brain to provide you with a greater willingness to accept ideas you might otherwise reject or neglect.

And to really jump-start that blocked brain, "you need to forget what you can't control and start implementing some ideas you can control," advises Himmelman. "This business of creativity is messy. You need to get your hands dirty."

His advice? A technique he calls "Totally Legal Inspiring Thievery," which is all about borrowing and amalgamating. "Don't worry; there's nothing wrong with it. Creative and fearless people borrow from everywhere and find inspiration in the least likely places." For example, John Lennon came up with the title to his song, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" when producer George Martin showed Lennon an ad in a gun magazine.

Himmelman demonstrates by reading headlines from  The New York Times and pulling out interesting titles and ideas for songs:

  • The headline "Qatar Wields Outside Influence in Arab Politics" gets hacked for this song title: Outside Influence
  • Another headline, "Major Changes in Health Care Likely to Last" becomes Likely to Last.
  • And a third, "Justices to Hear Health Care Case As Race Heats Up" morphs into The Race Heats Up.

"This little exercise is just a microcosmic example of what I'm talking about," writes Himmelman. "Open up a magazine, a Bible or your favorite novel and drink in the thoughts and inspiration of other writers. Go to an art museum and look at one or two works that move you."

The key is to get away from your own voice and be inspired by others. "We've all inadvertently carved some deep furrows by trying to recapture moments of our own inspiration," Himmelman writes. "Now it's time to let a new rain come and erase those furrow, making a field fresh for planning something unexpected."