The most common interview question that artists are asked is where they get their ideas. To a creative person, this is a hilariously absurd question. It’s more a question of, how do you suppress the constant stream of ideas when you need to concentrate on something specific? Everyone has this innate ability. Not everyone recognizes it or knows how to tune in to it. This question of where ideas come from is a perfectly fair and reasonable question to ask. Good luck, though, finding someone who will give it the sincere answer that it deserves.
“There are no stupid questions,” says a friend of ours, “only stupid people.” I respond, in the immortal words of Weird Al Yankovic, “Dare to be stupid.” The place of not knowing is the place of emptiness. When we allow ourselves to be empty, there is room for stuff. What stuff? Who knows? Why not keep it empty and see whether anything eventually burbles up?
The place of emptiness feels like boredom. That’s important. Be bored! Be bored for a few minutes! Boredom leads the mind to wander. THAT is where the ideas start to pop into existence. What if? Why does? Who would? How would someone? Where is? When did?
Idea generation is our natural state. All tiny kids are really, really good at this. They will color pictures in whatever colors strike their fancy – until they are taught that “the sky isn’t purple,” etc. Sure it is, sometimes! Sometimes it’s white, gray, pink, orange, brown, black, yellow, and even green. Trees are purple too, sometimes, and I’ve walked under many a jacaranda in my neighborhood. As we get older, we’re taught standard unfunny jokes about spurious college majors such as Underwater Basket Weaving. Seriously, have you ever been to Las Vegas? Have you ever watched a viral video? If someone actually could weave a basket underwater, I would want to watch. Not much competition there. The other one is poetry. You should be so lucky if your kid grows up to be a poet, like Eminem or Jay-Z. You know who has a bachelor’s degree in English? Stephen King. Our kid is studying artificial intelligence. The career she’ll wind up with doesn’t quite exist yet, but it’ll be ready by the time she graduates. If she’d felt limited by what we were doing at her age, she’d be either a logger or a data entry clerk. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that creative inspiration actually extends to the boring, mundane business world. Inspiration and innovation, art and inventions, are the same.
Inspiration needs somewhere to go. It happens all by itself, unless we block it. The first way we block it is by telling ourselves stories about how impractical and useless our ideas are. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I have a useless idea? Nothing. It’s just a figment of my imagination. I have useless ideas every day. Often, they morph into useful ideas after I’ve had time to mull them over. Sometimes my useless ideas make me laugh until I snort. Sometimes a useless idea, like a dream I had about a non-functional riding reel mower, turns into a funny drawing. The key is to make a nonjudgmental space for ideas, in the same way we put out bird feeders even though they sometimes attract squirrels.
Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas. We just have to unpack a bunch of the bad ideas so we can see them. If we stop when we generate a bad idea, we miss the opportunity for the good idea to spring forth. We cultivate an attitude of curious detachment. We are lying on our backs on a grassy hill, watching cumulus clouds and trading observations about what they look like. I see a swan, you see a Viking longship, we’re both right, and a moment later the wind kicks up and we see something else. We allow ideas to come forward, releasing the expectation that they will amount to something or be suitable for a specific purpose.
The grassy hill is a place where none of us spend much time. That’s because we pack our schedules past the breaking point. Sleep deprivation is the norm for 70% of us. If you are not sleeping enough, you are not going to have a steady stream of inspiration and interesting ideas. You’re turning off the flow of dreams, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Lots of famous people have had career-defining inspirations while sound asleep, and many of them took naps every day. When every moment is full of tasks, conversations, distractions, and passive entertainment, not much else can fit in.
A shower radio is a toy I’ve always found appealing, and I could have one tomorrow if I wanted. They keep coming out with more features at lower prices. I’ve made the decision, though, to avoid that sort of thing. The shower is reliably the place where I come up with the best ideas and most helpful insights. It may have something to do with lathering my hair. It may be that I’m not completely awake yet and I haven’t dived into the day’s work. It may simply be that it’s a block of time when I’m not reading or listening to anything. Maybe if I spent an hour sitting in silence and staring at the wall, I’d have more ideas. Maybe I’ll try it. I wonder what would happen…?
Getting out of default mode is a big help. Making a practice of trying new activities, constantly learning as much as possible, meeting new people, tasting new foods, listening to new kinds of music, and imagining oneself in various different lives are all potential ways to stretch the mind and make a little space for new ideas to come in. Unfortunately, the human condition is such that our default mode tends to consist of being annoyed with people, being annoyed by events, having hurt feelings, gossiping about what other people are doing, worrying what others think about us, complaining, reliving bad memories, and imagining negative future possibilities. There may be ways to get interesting ideas out of those activities, and if I spend some time on it, maybe I’ll think of some. Mostly, though, they’re static drowning out the pure chord of inspiration.
Ideas can work together like wheels on a kaleidoscope. Just as we can combine worry + any category of life, we can combine idea + idea and see what happens. Let’s do some common negative examples. Can you think of a way to worry about money? How about your family members? Different worry for each person? Great job! Can you worry about transportation? How about illness or injury? Lots of ideas there? Awesome! Can you worry about the economy, world affairs, and what various leaders might do? Mmhmm, I thought so. Nice work. See, everyone is creative, we’re just taught to focus it only on approved channels. Let’s take that amazing gift and try it out in some other ways. Imagine a person whom you know, just the first person who comes to mind. Now mentally rotate through other people you know and think about whether the first person knows the second person. If not, what do you think would happen if they met? This is one of my favorite games, and I’ve used it to introduce various people who have become friends. I see that two of my friends who live in different states both do the same type of workout. I see another friend make a joke that reminds me of someone else’s sense of humor. What starts as a random thought turns into a new friendship in the world. In the same way that strangers can become friends, random ideas can become friends, too.
We tend to rate other people’s ideas higher than our own. What comes naturally to us doesn’t seem special. Where artists have the advantage is that they focus on the idea’s desire to enter the world. The idea desires to be expressed. It is a seed that wants to sprout. We understand that we are not skilled at judging which of our projects will succeed and which will be duds. It’s not our job to criticize, it’s our job to execute. It’s our job to complete projects and release them. It’s our job to have ideas, allow them to be what they are, and record them in some manner. Usually we have to do this in private, because the natural predator of an idea is a fearsome animal known as the naysayer. They are venomous and their bites can kill. Naysayers are only big enough to bring down ideas when they are young and small. We foster them in safety until they are developed enough to stand on their own, causing the naysayer to slink away and skulk in the underbrush.
Inspiration builds on itself. The more time and space we allow for it, the more it happens. We start to trust the process and recognize the feeling. We learn to pause and take notes, because ideas that fluttered in so graciously will eventually fade and disappear. The notes begin to accumulate. It doesn’t take long before we realize that we have more ideas than we could ever use, and that they’ll keep on coming. Ideas are like pennies in the street, just as easy to find and just as easy to undervalue.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.