Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects.

Nikola Tesla

I find myself pondering this often: Where do good ideas — or ideas at all — come from?

We speak of ideas as something we have. From someplace mysterious, ideas come to us.

And sometimes they don’t come to us. Or the ones we have aren’t worth much.

We want to have good ones.

Is there some kind of market where we buy a good idea? Maybe a whole bucket of them?

When you remember a time when you felt particularly flush with good ideas, what was your secret? What stream did you voyage to to fill that bucket?

I remember a particularly prolific period of my life when I was traveling and going for long walks every day. Each morning I would run and jog. The weather was spectacular. My environment was expansive and supportive.

If I do that again, will I have good ideas? Quite possibly, provided I remain open with expectations. The less I constrict myself with regard to judging whether each new idea is the correct one, the more positive my outcome can be.

This is the tried-and-true wisdom of brainstorming, and you can take it a step further by

  1. remaining open
  2. holding a clear intent

If I hold a tight grip on my expectations, I am bound to struggle even in a perfectly supportive environment.

Trying to reverse engineer your perfect idea-creation environment can seem very complicated. Even if you could replicate the circumstances for good ideas, you merely create the fertile terrain, yet you still can’t guarantee an outcome.

In other words, the reason you’re struggling is probably not because you’re not sitting at the right desk or not talking with the right people or in the perfect temperature range.

The right ideas are probably not far away from your conscious awareness, yet you’re just not seeing them right now. You can be basically surrounded by solutions and just not seeing them because you are expecting them to arrive packaged in a certain way.

Like drowning next to a river.

Like forgetting to ask the right questions.

How do I know this?

Over the years, I have worked with enough writers to discover similar patterns. They do it, I do it, and you probably do it. After putting a ton of work into something, their thinking becomes more near-sighted and they lose sight of the essence that compelled them in the first place. They become more concerned with getting it done than with knowing what it is they’re finishing.

Their expectations are strong, but they have lost clarity of intent.

Without clear intentionality, your wanderings are apt to feel fruitless or aimless. It’s hard to make progress on engineering something as multifaceted as a novel unless you remain intentional about your project. Your intentionality is a landing pad for inspiration to bring you new ideas.

Hold an intent… and keep your expectations open.

Some secrets of great inventors

Holding clear intent, it’s not necessary to reverse-engineer whatever way worked for you last time. Feel free to continue to spiral outwards as a creator, trying new things. Just for the thrill of growth and discovery. It’s a big world out there. Your whims and inner wisdom have so much to offer you.

I’ve never heard a story of any of the great inventors being normal people trying to blend in, insisting on doing things the normal way. They followed a very different set of instructions than most people.

Many great inventors had unusual sleep schedules, either sleeping for only a few hours or only taking naps.

Tesla refrained from sex and was obsessed with the number three and found that repeatedly curling his toes stimulated his thinking.

Dr Nakamats found that holding his breath for exceptionally long periods of time led to good ideas.

Ben Franklin took long nude “air baths,” basically exposing his nethers for all the world to behold.

Curiosity was the driving force for Leonardo da Vinci. An intense curiosity for everything and a strong desire to apply this curiosity. To make things, to experiment.

Nonreductionist models to creation

I am often intrigued by new approaches people come up with to distill patterns from books and movies. To find a simpler more straightforward way to come up with good ideas.

If it worked for Steven King, will it work for me?

Maybe there really is a “bestseller code” or a plot arc that is guaranteed to make my readers happy.

I am still apt to be drawn in by any new claim as to the “True secret of writing.” You mean all I need to do to write the next bestseller is to load some data into a chart and fill in the blanks?

The experiences that happen in a house cannot be reduced to its design.

A story ‘s essence cannot be boiled down into its plot elements.

You can explain it, you can map it, but the essence of the thing is only there in the flow of the thing itself. A story can only really be mapped after it gets created/experienced.

Strategy for creation: layering

One suggestion for writers who get stuck with this is to approach creation not from a single angle but from several angles. Layer them.

Each component part contributes texture. Combine elements and feel for an overall vibe.

Creation doesn’t have to feel like a monolithic thing that you have to approach from the daunting perspective of what the finished project should look like.

The interplay between characters, not only the main character.

Not only what the setting is, but the way the speaker engages with it and relates with it over time.

Not taking a standard perspective but giving some attention to what the speaker sees and how they judge things. And what they do not mention, and why.

Standing up in the mystery of imaginative creation

When marveling at a great story, we often ask ourselves:

“How did they come up with that?”

My invitation is to engage that question with a sense of wonder as your guiding force. Joy. Rather than seeking a way to reliably reduce what your heart really wants to be a long romantic quest, trust the process.

Layer different techniques and tricks rather than insisting on a single right unified formula that all good writing can boil down to.

Search for Yes/ands rather than either/ors.

Borrow this style, bring that goal to the project, prioritize these scenes, and just see what happens. If it doesn’t work out perfectly… then I’ll write another book.

[bctt tweet=”Fix it in the next one.”]

Remain open-ended and unattached while holding an intent as you work… discover… refine.

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