The role isolation plays in the creative process

Is isolation a necessary component of creative thinking?

If we want to have a truly unique idea, the theory goes, we must lock ourselves away with inspiration in order to get it. But the reality is that isolation is important for only one stage of the creative process. For everything else, isolation can hinder, not help, creative thinking.

Yet when we look at the most celebrated creatives in history—the likes of Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Mozart, Picasso, or Jobs—the persona we often see is that of the lone genius. It feels empowering to look at these creative greats and the ideas they brought into the world as individualistic rather than one piece in a larger picture, because it means that we, too, can become great if we can come up with the next big idea ourselves, on our own.

Creativity, we sing, is about individual expression and what we can come up with on our own, so it makes sense that we should isolate ourselves from the rest of the world if we’re to come up with any worthwhile ideas. This misbelief is spread far-and-wide, as even creative experts preach that room away from noise and clutter is the best way to generate novel and valuable ideas.

But the reality is far from that picture. Ideas do not come from isolation, at least not completely. Isolation does play an important role in the creative process, but it’s only one small part in a much larger picture of how ideas come to fruition.

In their research on “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth”, researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser write:

“This modern view of creativity has venerated the artist or genius as a cultural hero, because he or she is someone who has forged something new and original by struggling against and rising above the limiting forces of the conforming masses… To maintain such a stance, the creative person must disengage him or herself from the environment. The resulting isolation is romanticized or even seen as being synonymous with genius.”

But the isolation we often reflect in the creative role is firstly figurative, not literal. In-fact, as Montuori and Purser go on to state, to try and be creative through isolation will greatly hinder the ability to think of effective solutions or ideas. Instead we must do the opposite of isolate ourselves:

“Creative individuals...have a greater tolerance for ambiguity and openness to experience. In other words, they are more open to their environment and find that the environment provides them with the context for creativity.”

It’s hard to create something in the absence of where that something will exist. You cannot, as an example, effectively come up with a new type of art if you don’t understand the world of art as it exists today. You’d fail to create if you weren’t first keenly aware of where the existing forms and processes fall short. You can’t solve a problem if you’re not completely understanding of what the problem is and why it’s a problem to begin with, and you cannot come to understand these things in isolation; with only one perspective you will only have a small picture of reality. What we instead need is a broad picture of the work to be done.

The researchers later state how creatives do not look to isolate themselves for the purpose of creative idea generation, but instead “actively pursue” the environments in which their ideas will be challenged or thrive.

Our best ideas are not the result of some hidden, inner insight, but rather the chemistry of our history, the culture around us, and the environment of the ideas themselves.

In his book Creative Intelligence, author Bruce Nussbaum echoes this sentiment by saying:

“As cool as ‘Aha moments’ are, and as interesting as it is to understand what parts of our brain are working when we’re improvising or solving a problem when we’re in the shower, creativity is about so much more than that moment...and it’s about so much more than the individual experiencing that moment. We increase our creative ability by learning from others, collaborating, sharing.”

So history and research studies have shown that the best ideas—the truly novel and impactful concepts—come not primarily from any one individual, but rather individuals tend to add an important personal layer to the existing concepts or perceptions of a larger community. Our best ideas stem from existing ideas outside ourselves, shaped by historical, cultural, and social exchanges.

Steven Johnson, in his iconic book Where Good Ideas Come From, underlines this notion that the best ideas come from not any single individual, but an individual as part of a whole:

"The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table…This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”

So if isolation isn’t the key to creative ideas, why do many experts and creative professionals remark on it so often? Because isolation may not be the critical component of creativity, it does play an important role.

Once we have a spark of an idea—by immersing ourselves in the environment that surrounds it—we should give ourselves time and space to let it grow, but only ever so slightly.

We do this through isolation: a walk in the park or a quiet morning meditation.

Albert Einstein cherished his moments of isolation, as he once shared: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head.” Or as Tesla exclaimed: “The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude. Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind.”

The important thing here is that the stage of isolation—or idea incubation—isn’t the entire creative process in and of itself. When it comes to isolation: our ideas are best served by limiting that break to only brief intervals that will allow us to synthesize what we’ve taken in.

The purpose of a break is to take all of the noise of the work and world and quiet the incoming signals long enough for our brains to focus. But when there’s little to focus on—if we’ve been isolating ourselves too much—the exercise becomes futile.

Isolation helps us to limit the noise long enough to make sense of what we’ve taken in; it allows us to trim the mental fat, so to speak, in an effort to tune our mental abilities on the pieces that we can influence or which will influence us.

If you want to be creative your best served by not isolating yourself, but instead by immersing yourself in the environments, communities, and spaces where you can be inspired most. Only looking to temporarily isolate yourself once you’ve had enough time immersed in the world.

We are the bakers, not the makers, of ideas

The way you make a cake is by collecting a bunch of ingredients, mixing them together in the right order, then putting it all into an oven to bake.

The process of creativity is a lot like baking a cake, in that it entails the gathering of ingredients—or knowledge—then mixing it up and allowing it to “bake” in your subconscious.

But how often do we think of creativity as something we do as opposed to a process we merely facilitate? The nuances of consciousness and anything beneath it aside, creativity is very much something which takes place outside of our full control. If we could generate novel and useful ideas at any moment, on a whim, there’d be nothing about creativity worth researching or writing about.

Of course creativity doesn’t work on-demand. It isn’t something we can readily rely on, let alone elicit as needed. Instead, it’s a process which we contribute to—or don't—and with which we experience the results as though they had come from a part of ourselves we have little to no awareness of.

We don’t “make” or “generate” ideas any more than we cook a cake. The oven is the thing doing all the work, we’re merely the ones who put the ingredients into it. Our subconscious is an oven, it’s our job to put the right stuff into it and then give it time to bake.

If you want to be exposed to new ideas, there are certainly things you can do to provoke them out of our brain. But the process is no different than baking: you have to first have all the ingredients, then mix them together, followed by giving them time to “bake.” You can adjust the temperature and try replacing ingredients, but the result always requires the time and diligence to bake.

We don’t pull ideas out of nowhere. To “have” an idea is to hold it, not to pull it from the void. In a way, we only ever discover ideas, not create them. We’re the bakers of ideas.

Enough with brainstorming already

The next time you’re invited to or thinking about running a brainstorm: don’t.

Brainstorming as many consider it to work today is antiquated. The notion of being able to generate a lot of random ideas in a group setting came about in a time before email, instant messaging, and the always-ready personal super-computer (or iPhone).

Literally: brainstorming was conceptualized in 1953 and first became widely used in the 1970s!

Today the landscape of work and collaboration has changed.

Where brainstorming can lead to problems like groupthink and building upon biases of the louder voices, alternatives to group brainstorming can avoid such issues.

Typically a brainstorm works like this: a person or two (typically in some type of leadership role) organize a time dedicated to gathering several people in a room. Sticky notes or whiteboard markers are often provided to the group.

From there, upwards of an hour (or more) is dedicated to exploring ideas, any ideas at all. “There are no bad ideas,” people will say. “Anything goes.”

And what tends to follow in these situations is a quiet room of stillness. Maybe one person will start doodling or writing gibberish, but the majority of the room is spent wondering what to write, either because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or because they simply aren’t aware of all the contexts of what problem it is they’re idea should resolve.

Such a feeble exercise is prized because it feels like a team effort toward solutions. It feels like productivity. But in reality brainstorming tends to waste both time and money.

For each person involved in a brainstorm, you must multiply the time invested to see exactly how much working costs a brainstorm costs.

If twelve people are involved in a one-hour brainstorm, you just spent 12 people hours for what? A few ideas which likely one or more individuals on the team could have drummed up themselves, independently, given an hour to do it?

And that’s really what we should be considering today as an alternative to group brainstorming: the power of the connected individual.

Instead of running a brainstorm, consider emailing (remember email?) each person and requesting they quickly send you a bulleted list of ten ideas for a problem. Ten ideas, right now, nobody will ever see the list and anything goes because you’ve got nothing to lose.

If twelve people take five minutes to email you ten ideas each, you’ve only used up one total working hour to get arguably the same results of a brainstorm.

Better yet: by giving people the time and space to think about the request for ideas outside of a dedicated meeting space (one in which extroverts tend to overpower others), you’re also enabling them to do research and free-thinking on the problem, which is likely to generate more impactful results.

Something to think about the next time you’re invited to, or thinking about putting on, a brainstorm.

Focus on brainexploring, not brainstorming, to have ideas

You can stumble on more creative ideas by replacing brainstorming with an equal amount of time dedicated to simply asking questions.

Brainstorming was a creative thinking exercise which sparked in 1953. The exercise entails withholding criticism and judgement while trying to come up with many ideas in a set amount of time.

For all of the praise brainstorming has received over the last six-plus decades, it’s also gotten a lot of flack and produced many mixed results. In corporate settings, brainstorming tends to lead to groupthink and biases in possible solutions. Brainstorming on the individual leads to more of the same rather than actual, novel ideas.

In my own experience, brainstorming only occasionally leads to ideas which are both novel and valuable. More often than not it leaves me feeling unaccomplished, like I have run my brain in circles trying to find something I think should be somewhere in there, but often isn’t.

Traditional models of brainstorming cause us to lead ourselves in a direction we think is more creative but in reality is only more restrictive. Brainstorming is the process of evaluating where we think good ideas should come from rather than where they actually are likely to come from: the places we aren’t thinking of.

So I recently began experimenting with a new exercise for creative thinking, one that is less likely to lead to biases and much more likely to take myself or my thinking group to surprising places. It’s worked remarkably well for me, and it might work well for you too.

The exercise is simple: ask questions, don’t try to answer them, then ask more questions.

The more curious I get about the questions, the more surprised I am in the direction they lead me. One questions leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, and by the time I’m 60 questions in I’ve begun to think about my problem or project in an entirely new way.

Rather than taking our minds to where we expect ideas or solutions to be, asking questions (and questions about our questions, and so on) leads to more insights than trying to answer or find solutions to simply one or two rounds of questions.

It’s a simple enough exercise which helps avoid biased, basic thinking by forcing you to dig into the details of, and relationships between, ideas.

The next time you set aside time for brainstorming, instead see where your mind goes when you dedicate the time to constantly asking questions and nothing more. Where will it take you? What details will you stumble on? How will the details help you uncover new information? How will that information relate to other ideas you weren’t initially thinking of? How will those relative ideas unravel more details? What happens when brainstorming becomes brain-exploration?

If you’re not the person bringing ideas to the table…

If you’re not the person bringing ideas to the table, somebody else will.

Perhaps, but even if that’s true, the ideas somebody else shares won’t be the same as the ones you can. Because only you have seen the world through your eyes, with your mind. Only you understand, or have questions about, or are moved by, things unique to your experience.

We often forget that the bridge between the best idea and the rest, is perspective.

A result of believing this fallacy is that we either spend all of our energy seeking out an impossible “best” idea, or we don’t bother trying to think creatively to begin with. In both cases, we lose.

Nobody is asking you to come up with the best idea on that spot, that’s a myth perpetuated by fictional literature and cinema. Instead, what we’re asking you to do is to share your perspective, your original thought.

Even if somebody else could say something similar, come to a similar conclusion, or have a similar thought, it’s not the same, because it’s not from you.

Doodle by Luigi Mengato.