You know that saying, “you are what you eat?”
I just finished reading a fantastic book called The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and it made me realize that the stimuli around you, and where you derive inspiration can have a huge impact on your creative output and the quality of your ideas.
In the book, Todd mentions a famous stunt by Derren Brown, the “psychological illusionist”. Derren invited two ad execs to his office. After a long taxi ride, he gave them 30 minutes to come up with a poster for a chain of taxidermy stores, including a name and tagline. In the middle of the boardroom table was a sealed envelope they were to open later, after they had presented their ideas. The ad execs came up with a business name “Animal Heaven”, and their poster featured a bear playing the lyre and the tagline “The Best Place for Dead Animals”. When they opened the envelope, it contained Derren’s ideas – a nearly identical poster, with a very similar illustration and tagline.
Is Darren psychic? He later revealed the method behind the stunt. The taxi ride to the office subtly featured several of the items that showed up in the poster – a lyre, a poster with the phrase “The Best Place for Dead Animals”, and a trip past the London Zoo, all of which made subconscious impressions on the ad execs.
Very few ideas, even breakthrough ideas, are truly unique. They are the product of the world and stimuli around us. Many of the wildly successful products that we think of as breakthroughs are existing inventions applied to a different use (Post-it Notes), or better-designed versions of existing products (the iPod and iPhone). We are what we consume, and our brains are pattern makers – putting ideas together and making connections to form new ideas. Just like food, you can be more deliberate about putting quality stimuli in our brains, and toning down the junk-food. If you surround yourself with high-quality stimuli, you’ll have high-quality ideas.
Here are a few ways that you can improve the quality and quantity of stimuli:
Build an advisory board: Often my best ideas come from conversations, and more often, my mediocre ideas get honed into something better after lunch with a friend. Surround yourself with people from different backgrounds and professions, and meet regularly and deliberately to talk about big ideas, what you’re reading, and what inspires you lately.
Get out of the office: If you’re always in the same office, hanging out with the same people, chances are you’re recycling the same ideas over and over. Go work at a coffee shop for the morning, or go to the gym at lunch. You never know who you will meet, and you’ll be surprised about the ideas and energy that surfaces from simply being somewhere different.
Take a field trip to a museum: Go see something beautiful. Surround yourself with creativity.
Make something: Build something with your hands. Have a hobby that is a creative outlet, whether it’s painting, composing music, or customizing motorcycles. You’ll use a completely different part of your brain
Watch a documentary: Give the reality TV a break for the evening and watch a documentary.
Get your news from someplace different: If you normally read the Chicago Tribune, read the London Times instead. If you read the Economist, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone. Read trade magazines from a completely different industry.
Give email a break: You need to give yourself the focused time and space to generate new ideas, and ideas aren’t going to come from plowing through your email. We’re paid to create new value, not have an empty inbox. Set times through the day to answer your email, and set focused time in your week purely for idea generation.
These are just a few ideas. I’d love to hear yours – add them to the comment stream! Where do you derive your quality inspiration?
Does that mean no more junk food? To be creative, do we have to give up People magazine and American Idol? It’s ok to have a little junk food now and then, but make quality stimuli the staple of your diet, and be mindful and deliberate about your sources of inspiration, and you’ll increase both the quantity and quality of your ideas.