How creating mental blocks from curiosity, and knocking them down, can spark creative ideas

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

This quote from Pablo Picasso has always intrigued me.

What does it mean to work for inspiration? Is it enough to spend time browsing the web in search of some spark? Or does the work need to be of a more difficult kind?

I found a similar quote this afternoon, from the great Greek ruler Leonidas, that may give us some additional insights. He said:

“Action produces the appetite for more action.”

This, I believe, is a crucial key to getting creatively unstuck. It’s when we stop working that our ability to think creatively also stops. So the two – thinking creatively and taking action – are undoubtedly linked.

There are then two ways of looking at this: the first is to say that we must have a problem to solve or a project to move forward on in order to give ourselves the momentum to think creatively in the first place.

In other words: it’s difficult to drum up ideas if there isn’t a purpose to doing so.

The other way of looking at this advice is that, when we feel the least creative – the least to do creative work or have new ideas – the best thing to do is anything actionable.

We can think of our brains like domino machines, and when we get creatively stuck it’s because there isn’t a block in front of us to knock down.

The solution becomes easy to identify when we view creative thinking from these perspectives: put a metaphorical block down in front of you and follow it as it continues to knock others down.

I could throw in a dozen more quotes here about how this relates to creativity being about “just connecting things.”

To be creative, and to do creative work, we have to ensure there’s a constant setup of blocks in front of us (to knock down, or connect, or whatever verb works best for you).

Here’s an example of how to use this information in order to get ideas flowing:

Go to Google.com and start typing a question, something actionable. Type “How do I”, or “Learn how to”, or “How do you” or something like that.

The results will be surprising, most likely. Topics will appear like: how to tie a tie, or how to do a backflip, or how to do crafts, or how to make the best french toast. I have never tried to do a backflip, but I wonder what it takes to learn.

These topics are our starting block. It’s time to knock one down and see what comes after it. So follow one of the ideas, maybe it’s learning how to tie a new knot or how your favorite candy is made or how to do backflips.

As you learn about the topic you can start to relate it to others: the work you’re doing or another topic that popped-up when you did your original search (as we’ll get into again in a moment).

Allow yourself to be curious about the topic.

Ask questions and follow them online, in a notebook, or just in your mind: is it easier to do a backflip off of something? How does doing a backflip under water impact your ability to do it out of water? Who do you think first invented the backflip? How many people are hurt each year as a result of doing a backflip?

The more you dive into these topics and follow them, the more questions you should have. As you dive into the answers to those questions you’ll find yourself discovering and uncovering new topics to follow as well.

Congratulations: you’ve started the process of action. This, according to Picasso and Leonidas, is a crucial step toward thinking creatively.

All you have to do now is link the topics to your work: How is thinking creatively like doing a backflip? If you tried to flip an idea around like a backflip, what difficulties would you face?

If you’re stuck, take action: setup the blocks in front of you that can lead to new and curious ideas.

Read this next: Why we get stuck

Photo by David Pacey.