Ideas are tricky things. Some change the world and are so astoundingly brilliant that they seem born from a higher power, some are downright awful and are regretted immediately, and others are simply tips and tricks to help us get along in the world a little better.
There is an indomitable link between creativity and ideas. To be creative, you simply must have them. And while we all occasionally get moments of unbridled inspiration, when you are truly set on finding an idea or a place to begin the mind can decide to be a little... slack. Being ready to get started but finding you have nothing to say is utterly frustrating, but completely normal.
Understanding your own creativity and learning what makes others creative are great ways to spark inspiration. If you're feeling unmotivated or daunted by beginning a project, perhaps it is time to look into what is happening behind the scenes. To help, we've put together some advice, tips and tricks to help you discover where your good ideas are lurking and how you can lure them into being. And here we are as follows...
Finding somewhere to begin can be the hardest part of any creative project. The more ideas you come up with the more likely you’ll find a direction that works, but this is impossible if our insidious inner critic is shooting down every fledgling idea before it’s formed. Nothing will stop you being creative more effectively than the fear of making a mistake. Invention is born out of experimentation, it thrives through an inquisitive openness to whatever may come. To play with ideas takes a certain level of confidence; you have to be willing to risk embarrassment, to ask silly questions and entertain the absurd.
When faced with the dreaded blank page, before you start self-censoring your ideas, try to convince yourself that when being creative, nothing is wrong. Many ideas may not be worth pursuing, but equally, any drivel may lead to a breakthrough. Put the idea of perfection out of your head and concentrate on playfulness, for in the pursuit of a good idea there is quite simply no escaping the bad ones. Get yourself started by putting your wildest thoughts and fancies on paper and giving yourself the freedom to be silly, make mistakes, and above all have fun.
However mysterious the mechanisms of generating great ideas may appear, there is one thing we can know with certainty: ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are never created from nothing, and while they come from within us, they are formed by what we absorb from the external world. Our ideas are the sum of our influences, interests and expertise, they are formed from our personal inventory of knowledge. Put simply, one of the best ways to improve the output of our ideas is to pay attention to what we input into our consciousness.
Curiosity is the no doubt lifeblood of creative thinking and the driving force behind discovery. The more raw material we collect to be influenced by the more dynamic our ideas will become. Be open to new ideas, develop an inquisitiveness to the ideas around you, and examine the ideas you’ve come to accept. Seek out and absorb diverse influences to inspire you and see if you can improve on them or add your own personal touch.
Creative partnerships and collaborative groups are undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts and through collaboration you can achieve something neither party could alone. The myth of the lone creative genius - to whom brilliantly original ideas offer themselves fully formed - is as seductive in its romanticism as it is destructive for anyone who finds they do not match up to this impossible standard. To counter this Brian Eno put forward the clever concept of the ‘scenius’ to describe how creative thinking and insight thrives best in communities. Appreciating that great ideas are often birthed by a number of individuals who make up an ‘ecology of talent’, the scenius represents the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene.
Don't wait until you're 'good enough' to collaborate or share your ideas. Delight in people who motivate you to be creative. Seek out someone to bounce your ideas off, ask questions, or simply listen to your rambling as you develop your thinking. But beware of anyone who makes you feel defensive, nothing will kill creativity as swiftly. Equally, consider of how you operate; don’t shoot someone down when they have the courage to offer an idea. Cultivate the right spirit of freedom and inclusiveness and who knows where a new creative alliance might lead.
Ever notice how a crossword solution comes back to you after ten minutes? Or how the advice ‘sleep on it’ is always offered when you need some time to mull something over? And why you have your best ideas whilst showering or drifting off to sleep? Disconnecting can be the best trick for having ideas, especially if you’re feeling a little stuck. While it may seem counterintuitive, working too hard on a problem can be detrimental to creative thinking. Taking a step back from the task at hand and allowing yourself to relax lets the mind process what you’ve been working on, creating mental space for divergent thinking and allowing your subconscious mechanisms to do their thing. Einstein was well aware of the benefits of these processes, recording that his best breakthroughs most often occurred while sailing or playing the violin.
Keeping an idea under your hat for a while before acting on it can produce more fully formed results. Rather than demanding a perfect outcome immediately, allow an idea time to develop naturally, accept that a solution will emerge and you will end up with a much more dynamic creation or idea.
Throughout our existence we amass a collection of cross disciplinary building blocks - knowledge, memories, favourite artworks, sparks of inspiration and the myriad of existing ideas that leave their impression on us. Even great ideas are never truly original as they are formed of mutations and remixes of these pre-existing elements and ideas. For new ideas the art is to train your brain to see relationships between things in new ways.
While some people see the facts in front of them as discrete bits of knowledge, others recognise them as links in a complex but interrelated network. As Leonardo Da Vinci put it “Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” Practice modes of thinking about the ways in which different things relate to each other, and how things could be combined to make something entirely different. Draw upon diverse influences and seek out connections that go beyond the obvious; the more elements at your disposal, the more likely you will arrive at innovative combinations.
An example of this type of thinking is The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, who reported that the idea behind the trilogy came when channel surfing between reality TV and war coverage; the combination of the two gave birth to Katniss Everdeen’s story.
We each have a great deal more ideas than we probably give ourselves credit for, but they can slide from the imagination into oblivion as quickly as they appeared, especially when they arrive at inopportune moments. Getting into the habit of recording ideas as soon as they occur not only preserves them, it trains the mind to become more attuned to notice them when they strike. Almost all great creatives have recorded their ideas, thoughts and observations in some form. Notebooks and journals affirm within our minds the value of our impressions, training our brains to provide further insights and are a brilliant resource to look back over when you find yourself in need of inspiration.
The process of writing our ideas down focuses our attention on them, but it also stimulates our brain to process and develop them. When ideas appear they are often broad and encompassing, by transforming them into the limiting and linear format of words we define and refine them, we give our ideas substance through articulating the abstract.
Inspiration is truly a tricky thing, and its okay and completely to feel uninspired at times. We hope these ideas may bring you to look at your work with fresh eyes, or blow away those cobwebs in some of the deeper corners of your creativity.
As a little extra homework for anyone looking to learn more about creativity and ideas, we highly recommend this TED Talk by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, who talks about the pressures and magic of inspiration and the detrimental idea of the creative genius.
This article first appeared in The Idea Exchange. This month long collaboration between The Dilettante and independent Nottingham magazine emporium Ideas on Paper in 2017 explored the concept of ideas, what makes them good and how they can be aroused. We invited people to contribute their most bizarre or bright ideas via social media and received a wonderful concoction of suggestions, notions, thoughts and theories which were exhibited within the shop. You can read the Ideas On Paper edition of The Dilettante Gazette here.