“The frightening and most difficult thing about being what somebody calls a creative person is that you have absolutely no idea where any of your thoughts come from, really. And especially, you don’t have any idea about where they’re going to come from tomorrow.”
This opening line by Hal Riney from the 2009 documentary Art & Copy might be my favorite quote regarding the creative process.
As someone who might be considered a creative person, I instantly connected with this powerful observation. So much so that upon first hearing it, I immediately rewound the documentary and listened to it again.
Where do our creative thoughts come from? Experience and practice? Intellect? Randomly, from the wonderfully complex supercomputer we all carry around in our heads? Divine intervention? My guess is that it’s a combination of all these.
The Lifehack.org website breaks it down this way, “We get ideas from within ourselves and from without, or more to the point, from the interaction of the two.”
Tips for Breaking Through the Block
Be prepared. Ideas sometimes come from the vast database of knowledge you’ve accumulated over the years. Immerse yourself in your field of study. Read as much as you can and research current trends in your industry. Prepare your brain to be creative. Ideas come to those who are ready to receive them.
Be curious. Creativity often comes from the desire to understand something. Take an idea apart, tinker with it and put it back together in a different way. Ask yourself “what if?”
Be aware. Pay attention to the world around you. Look for problems that need to be solved and learn how others have solved similar issues.
Put in the effort. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. Ideas need to be followed up on and committed to. Create a plan of action and begin, whether you think you’re ready or not.
Get lucky. Luck is being at the right place at the right time, so putting yourself in places and situations specific to your industry or idea will make “lucky breaks” more likely to happen. Golfer Gary Player, who spent much of his life on the golf course once said, “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”
So, what do you do when the ideas just won’t come?
Form a Creative Group
Many years ago, I stumbled upon a copy of Think and Grow Rich. In the book, author Napoleon Hill describes the “mastermind” principle, which suggests that by forming a group of like-minded people, you’re more apt to develop a great idea than you would on your own. Hill describes the principle as “the coordination of knowledge and effort between two or more people who work towards a definite purpose in a spirit of harmony. No two minds ever come together without thereby creating a third, invisible intangible force, which may be likened to a third mind.”
This mastermind concept was inspired by Hill’s many conversations with the famed business leader Andrew Carnegie, who attributed his entire fortune and success to this principle.
Document Your Thoughts
If you have an idea, any idea, write it down before you forget it. My desk is usually littered in Post-It notes filled with in random ideas, sketches, doodles and other scribbles, that I eventually (and sometimes reluctantly) organize and copy to an “ideas” notebook. When I’m away from my desk, the Note app on my phone becomes my digital Post-It pad. Return to these ideas every so often. An old idea may be relevant to a current project or it might spark a completely new idea.
Think in Analogies
Another great technique is to think in analogies. The 2014 National Geographic article Where Do New Ideas Come From? explains that creative people are constantly connecting old knowledge and experiences to new situations. Think of those standard SAT questions: Crumb is to bread as _____, Splinter is to wood as _____.
Thomas Edison used this concept when thinking about his new invention the kinetoscope, a machine for viewing motion pictures. Through discussions with photographer Edward Muybridge, Edison discovered that motion could be recorded in a sequence of photographs. He realized that this was not so different from his phonograph, which recorded sound. His idea was to experiment with an instrument that would “do for the eye, what the phonograph does for the ear”, which is recording a series of elements in motion.
Get away from it!
Need an idea in a hurry? First, don’t panic. Stress and creativity are sometimes reluctant partners, especially in the advertising industry where deadlines always loom. However, the balance between stress and creativity has to be just right for the magic to happen. If you’re under too much stress, your mind often locks you out the creative process, causing creative block. Do your best to relax your mind. Give yourself 20 minutes to meditate and think about absolutely nothing. If a thought comes into your mind (and it will), acknowledge it and immediately let it go. Relaxing your mind doesn’t always mean you have to sit still. Take a walk around your neighborhood, through the mall, a grocery or a department store. Find places filled with color, sounds and smells. Be inspired by the environment around you. This practice will get you away from your stressful desk and put you in the frame of mind to create.
Sometimes, the best ideas come when you aren’t thinking about them.