When one thing can spark more ideas than 10,000

Maybe it’s just me, but I believe we live in a culture that wrongfully prizes having 100 ideas over 10.

Surely there’s a reason for this common belief. Edison and his team of engineers worked through 10,000 different ideas before finding the right one for constructing the ideal filament for the lightbulb.

Additionally, there’s ample evidence that having a quality of ideas can lead to quality ideas. This should come as no surprise, and I’m certainly not arguing against the value of coming up with a great number of ideas. The more ideas you are able to come up with, the more likely it is that one or more of them are truly creative.

However, there’s another part of the puzzle that tends to get overlooked. It’s a clarification on the value that discovering variations of a single idea creates.

Here’s an example of what I’m describing: say you’re given a pencil and a sheet of paper with 50 circles drawn on it. This is a real creative challenge, mind you.

Your task is to use the pencil to come up with a unique drawing that utilizes each circle individually. You might turn one circle into a tire and another into an eyeball. Maybe you draw a face in one circle and a scoop of ice cream in a different one.

The point is to use the circles to draw many different ideas.

And this type of exercise is really a great depiction of the common mentality around creative thinking. Variation wins. Divergent thinking – coming up with many radically different ways to utilize the circles as part of your drawings – is a sign of high creative capability.

But there’s a different approach to the exercise (and to the common perception around creativity) that I think is even more creatively empowering. It’s the notion of using generating variations from one central idea. Divergent thinking at the most basic level.

To continue this example: with this mode of thinking we would not look at each circle as a completely separate object to be solved, we would instead look at a single part of the challenge and focus on that.

What if we focused on the idea of using the tool, the pencil, in a unique way instead? Slowly shading in the first circle with the flat edge of the pencil. Shading in the second circle using only fast and sharp motion. The third circle could be simply filled by smashing the pencil into it, while the fourth circle would be a feeble attempt at shading using a now broken pencil.

Do you see the difference between the first circle-exercise outcome and the second?

I feel that I fall into this trap, of thinking in the more commonly accepted creative format, more often than not. I quickly attempt to jump from one idea to the next, in hopes that the next idea will be the one that really stands out.

But along this path of jumping from idea to idea, it’s clear that there are attributes of the first couple of ideas that beg to be explored.

In the circle exercise, not stopping to think about the pencil itself can easily be viewed as a mistake. The drawings we end up creating by focusing on the idea of the pencil as a tool may not be artistically superior, but they are absolutely (at least, arguably so) more creative.

This method works to help flush out future ideas as well because it helps create a more vivid and elegant picture of the possibilities. Maybe the splatter-like mark you get from smashing your pencil into one circle sparks an idea for drawing something akin to half of a cut-open kiwi fruit.

By defining what works, or doesn’t work, with a single idea, we make it possible to more quickly navigate the next couple of ideas.

Maybe if Thomas Edison and his team had stopped to really evaluate why the first idea they had for a lightbulb filament failed, or in what ways the material could be modified to succeed, they could have stopped at 100 ideas rather than 10,000. Maybe not. But maybe.

So the next time you’re brainstorming, or trying to think of a solution to a problem, or attempting to force your hand at creative thinking, stop at the next idea that crosses your mind and really look closely at it, what makes it stand-out and what makes it seem like a not-so-ideal solution to whatever it is you’re working on.

Rather than focusing on generating 100 ideas, focus on 10 variations of the one you’ve got.

The photo at the top of this post? That’s a 40x magnified look at the eye of a blank ant, provided by Macroscopic Solutions.