In the past week I’ve had several people tell me of their aspirations to create something, whether a new product or service, a book, a new business. Some people have a clear vision of what they want to do; most people have a vague dream and want to know how to get started. They’re seeking advice from me about how to start. Every time, the question has been some variation of this:
I want to [write/draw/craft/make/create/develop/build/publish]. How do I start?
Here are my humble suggestions:
First, start collecting lots and lots of ideas.
Creativity, according to researcher Sir Ken Robinson, is simply having original ideas with value. Your dreams begin with good ideas. You may have an idea already, but it’s not enough.
It doesn’t matter what you do. Are you looking for your next big product or service? Do you lead an organization with a cultural or morale problem? Need to name your new project? Have a vague concept for a book? An idea for your next talk? New classroom technique?
In every endeavor, dreams depend on solid ideas. Making things is not magic – as with anything you want to grow, to get a few good seedlings, you need to cultivate a lot, and you need to learn how to know if your new idea is good or mediocre.
Respect ideas; they are your currency. Gather them by the bucketload. Think of idea collection as a simple math equation: you need 10x, 15x, 20x more than necessary.
For example, I have over 100 unfinished blog posts and unwritten concepts saved in a folder. That used to bug me. I thought I wasn’t being productive enough, because I wasn’t keeping up. I have come to realize that having something unfinished, not because I’m not creating but because I am busy creating something else, is okay. It means I am generating more ideas than I can use.
Second, figure out some kind of routine for capturing ideas.
One innovator I read says he writes down 10 new ideas every day. A blogger I follow does “morning pages,” which is about 3-4 pages of stream of consciousness writing to begin every day. Google invites their employees to spend a portion of their work week generating new ideas.
In my book on creativity, Think Like a Five Year Old, I talk about “flashes,” where a good idea pops in my head at random times throughout the day. I used to think, “Oh, I need to write that down,” and wouldn’t, and I’d lose the great thought. Since I can’t control when the great idea appears, a few years ago I got intentional about respecting when ideas interrupt me.
Even after a few years of practice, this remains difficult to do well. I carry a journal, but sometimes want to type instead, so some ideas live on my desktop. I acquire others via my voice dictation app on my phone. I have three or four areas where raw ideas live, and I bounce between them all. Maybe I’ll refine this at some point, but the important thing is that I capture it, no matter how inefficient the method.
Here are five places I look for good ideas.
Third, resist the urge to order or prioritize ideas.
The need to organize or edit can be overwhelming. This I believe is the single hardest part of the creative process. We want to trim, cut, and delete before it is time to do so. Instead, what you need is a free-flowing, open-ended period of input. You need new material to work with! This is when divergent thinking is important. Most of us are comfortable with editing and trimming and deleting—judging work, our own and that of others. But we’re not as comfortable with making new work. We’d rather refine than mine. It is the making of new work that is courageous. It is one thing to refine, but another altogether to mine raw ore. (That’s me quoting myself from Think Like a Five Year Old, p. 136)
This is SO HARD. I have come to believe that the creative process is a spiritual discipline. I must work at allowing the fresh idea to emerge. I want to edit myself before it’s time. I want to rate ideas’ relative merits and make decisions about which to pursue, even before the time has come to decide. I want to settle, put it to bed, close the deal.
Ideas generally don’t need closing. They need incubation, and if you shut things down too quickly, they won’t develop, they’ll hatch too soon, they’ll die on the vine.
Fourth, start working on one of your ideas.
People make creativity out to be a magical or impossibly difficult thing. It’s really not. There’s only one big hard thing you have to do, and that is get past the intimidation of the blank page, the clean studio, the previous work mocking you from the shelf, and begin making something new.
Don’t worry about all of the ideas you’ve generated. This is my secret for staying creative within a busy life: I just pick one for today and start: drawing / writing / cutting / building / whatever it is you do. It’s just time.
Fifth, wait for the right mixture to emerge.
I have come to recognize that if I wait, the “right” idea will stand up and make itself known. I used to dive in and force a choice, even if I hadn’t discerned which idea was the right one; now I am more likely to wait, and make the irrational announcement to others that “something will surface.”
When I say that, I am not blowing smoke or buying time. Maybe I used to be, but now I just trust that knowing the answer, which is usually a mixture of several of the ideas I’ve been collecting and developing over a period of months, will crack open when it’s developed and ready to hatch.
What personal techniques do you use to create?