The myth of working like a creative genius

Don't wait for inspiration to strike — find it. Here's how. Hint: It takes practice.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

the art of ideas

I used to think ideas had to be novel, and well, awesome.

I used to think you were either good at coming up with ideas, or you sucked (and trust me, I fell in the latter group).

I used to dislike brainstorming. It was uncomfortable to be left with nothing after an initial burst of inspiration. And it's pretty much human nature to avoid uncomfortable things.

I also barely remember feeling like that.

These days, ideation is one of my favorite parts of any thinking process. Coming up with ideas is fun... but for a lot of people, it's not.

Somewhere along the lines, they learned that ideas belonged in the realm of the creative genius, and if every thought they had wasn't just effing brilliant, then they should just give up.

Only, it's not true.

brainstorming is a (mental) workout

The emptiness that comes after the first five or six ideas is not a personal failure of creativity. Most likely, your idea muscle is just out of practice — especially if you don't regularly demand your brain to come up with more than a few ideas on a regular basis. This quote from Farnam Street (Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking) sums it up perfectly:

“Most people don’t actually think. They just take their first thought and go.”

Even if you keep an idea list and practice coming up with 10 ideas every day, there comes a point where your brain just sorta shrugs and leaves you hanging.

Most of us don't realize that that point is when we're just getting started. It's the same thing in the gym, or on the road. Runners call it their 'second wind' and lifters know that getting stronger is all about pushing past their limits for another rep.

It's no different with ideas. You're not actually out of ideas. Your brain just thinks it is. So that's when you keep going — go bigger or smaller, change direction, and don't discount the seemingly bad, stupid ideas. Rethink brainstorming as not a judgement of creativity, but instead the first step in a process. Withhold the doubts and brain dump everything you think of, and then some.

That's when it becomes fun.

a method to the madness

Often once the initial list of ideas is created (and it's a list where only the "good ideas" made the cut), people stop. But ideas are better with a little refinement - and in the process you might even be struck with inspiration for a better idea. In the design thinking process, we focus on three steps to ideation: 
  1. Brainstorming (going wide)
  2. Organization (finding themes and patterns; identifying important criteria)
  3. Selection (narrowing down)
These steps (visualized below) form a funnel from the problem statement to an interesting concept to take further in the design thinking process.

Credits: Professor Michael G. Luchs, BUAD 451-02 Customer Insights for Innovation (Ideation Lecture)

This process makes ideation much more powerful and useful, with the end result being a higher quality concept than what we would have gotten out of choosing from a simple list of the first five - or even fifteen - ideas we came up with.

alex f. osborn, father of brainstorming

"It is easier to tone down a wild idea than to think up a new one."- Alex Osborn

Even the father of brainstorming encourages a little walk on the wild side. Here's a few tips from Osborn on how to do brainstorming right:

  1. Quantity over quality
  2. Think bigger and crazier
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Suspend judgment
In this ideation session, I was most struck by the third rule - build on the ideas of others.

Idea generation for me had always been mostly a solo activity. But this time, I started to notice when group work or solo work was more appropriate. It's a balance that can be hard to strike.

As someone who previously preferred solo brainstorming, I was especially surprised to find that structured group brainstorming - where the only speaking centers around announcing 'headlines' of ideas that are being thrown up onto the board - is actually a great way to get inspired with new ideas.

Some of my favorite ideas were built off someone else's idea first, and I doubt that I would have stumbled upon them myself. There's something to a group brainstorm that can't quite be done alone.  

in sum -

  • Forget the myth about being a creative genius; there's more of a process to inspiration and good ideas than you might think

  • To get better idea generation, generate more ideas. Unlike what most people think, idea generation is a 'muscle' that can be strengthened with practice

  • When you're in the middle of the brainstorming process, come up with tons of ideas - the more, the better - and be attached to none of them. Go big, broad, and crazy to create a solution space; that's where the cool, innovative product/service concepts exist

The big idea*? You don't need to be a creative genius to come up with great ideas and enjoy doing it.

Ideation in action
*Sorry, couldn't resist