How to have a creative idea.

People who aren’t regularly and explicitly creative in their everyday lives (ie, normal people with real jobs) can sometimes have a distorted idea of what being creative entails. I know I once did. I used to equate creativity exclusively with the “arts” – painting, music, film-making, etc. And that’s wrong.

The Latin root of the word “creative” is the verb creo/creere, which means to think. Not to draw or play. Being creative simply means having ideas. Thinking about things.

There are creative plumbers, creative parents, creative accountants. Creativity is about problem-solving.

Richard Branson is one of the most creative people in business. He looks at existing categories -airlines, the music industry, etc, sees what they’re doing wrong and then thinks of an idea to make it better. That’s creativity. He then goes and cancels out all this creativity by being a stupid git who won’t stay out of hot air balloons. Kidding.

So how do you have a creative idea? First you define the real problem you’re trying to solve. It isn’t always obvious. And it can take a while to figure out. Making sure you’re trying to solve the correct problem is the most important part. For obvious reasons. But lots of people blow right by it. Or accept someone else’s definition of the problem without thinking. Then, you soak up all the information and stuff that is relevant to the problem. And then, and only then, you start thinking of ideas. Because now you know what you have to do. It’s a simple three stage process.

The mistake most people make is rushing to the final stage — execution, the glamorous bit — without doing the boring but necessary first two bits. They immediately start frantically searching for something that they wouldn’t recognize if it bit them on the face: the right idea. Because they’re not looking for solutions, they’re just desperately trying to think an idea. Any idea! But they’re not yet in a position to judge their own ideas. So they go around in circles. Like puppies. Labrador puppies.

A good analogy is to think of creativity in terms of firing a gun. Ready, aim, fire. Think of how much time you devote to each of the stages. Ready and Aim (should) take a lot more time than Fire, which takes just an instant. Yet the impulse is to go right to Fire. The fun bit.

Ready is the problem definition stage. What’s the real problem? What effect are you trying to achieve?

Aim is the thinking about it stage. What are all the factors at work here?

Fire is merely the having an idea stage. The final bit.

The first two stages should be done with a very open mind (uncritical, unanalytical ) with no thought to the execution stage. The reason is that focusing on execution can cause paralysis of the brain. The terror that you’ll never have the right idea. So don’t do that. Instead focus on what you want to achieve and load up your mind with the raw materials for ideas: the boring facts, think about the dynamics that surround the problem you’re trying to solve. And the effect you want to have. This way you keep yourself busy and you’re not worrying about the idea stage. Because it’s too early.

The great part about this approach is that, though you might not know it, your subconscious mind is doing all the work for you.

Because the dirty little secret about creativity is that great ideas don’t come from racking your conscious mind and anxiously chewing pens and pacing around a room. Like they do in the movies. Or from so-called”brainstorming”. Great ideas come effortlessly. They bubble up from the subconscious mind. But first you have to tell your subconscious that you need an idea and feed it the necessary data.

And that’s really all there is to it.

5 responses to “How to have a creative idea.

  1. Vinny, This is really good advice and we all need reminding of it. I’m going to copy it off to send to my kids.

  2. You’re welcome Dave. Of course I stole most of this from Ed. But it really works.

  3. Archimedes would never had his idea about water displacement if he hadn’t have decided to chill out and take a bath. Funny thing is I’ve only ever had one idea in the bath. Mind you it was a bloody good one if I do say so myself. I resisted the urge to run down the street naked screaming “Eureka!” though.

  4. yeah, i’ve never had an idea in the bath. but then i’ve never worked on the water displacement account. but when i worked on beer i had plenty of ideas in the pub. and precious few in the office. i found this clip comforting. charlie brooker talks to comedy writers about how they have ideas.

  5. Pingback: THINK SETH GODIN JUST FOUND HIS NEW BOOK « ESCAPOLOGY (the escape pod’s blog)

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