Where good ideas (really) come from

Invention–the mere concept of invention–is a peculiar thing. Because it’s not true that until Einstein showed that E=mc2 or until Edison figured out the best filament to put into a lightbulb electricity, those truths hadn’t already existed.

E has always equaled mc2. Of course electricity existed before Thomas Browne and Benjamin Franklin and the capability of utilizing electricity to illuminate a room also existed. Those we attribute to these inventions didn’t create it from nothing, they simply made strides in how we understand the concepts.

This is, of course, obvious to many, but how often do we forget this fact?

Everything we can ever possibly think of already exists. It’s merely waiting for the right time (and open mind) to do so.

The same is true for nearly everything around us. Your computer, your car, the entire educational system of your country, houses, processed foods, all of the basic ingredients of these things have existed since… forever. It wasn’t until somebody thought about how metal rivets could hold wood together that the basic foundation for modern architecture was conceived, or how using intense heat could cause metal alloys to combine and create entirely new (and strong) structures or machinery, or how a small piece of glass and an electrical current combined could create something that could perceivably hold information in a binary (or 0 and 1) format as a computer does.

The same is true for conceptual inventions as well. Cubism as a style of painting has been around since the dawn of time, it was simply called something else until the late 1800s. Or look at writing, it has evolved over time, but the basic form of writing dates back to the first records of humankind itself.

My point is this: every great (feasible) idea already exists. Invention is not about creating something from thin air. Creation (and creativity) is simply about a deeper understanding of what’s possible, in ways nobody else has thought of (or was capable of seeing in), right now.

And the reason we fail to see these inventions, these ideas, these inexplicable truths about the world around us, is for two reasons.

The first is because the timing just isn’t right. A working engine was needed before the automobile could be created, and a horse-drawn carriage was needed before that, and even before that the idea of using horses as a mode of transportation was required.

The second reason we fail to see these incredible possibilities in the world around us, the reason we have more control over, is because we get so caught up in how things are right now.

We fail to see what the future of transportation looks like because whenever we think about it all we see is airplanes, automobiles, and trains. We can’t comprehend what’s just around the corner because we’re blinded by our already intense focus on what’s directly in front of us.

To truly think creatively, I believe we must step back and look at what’s just beyond whatever is immediately in front of us. What’s outside of our little frame of existence? We have to be willing to believe that there is possibility in looking out into the bizarre, the questionable, the complex, the unknown.

Only by looking and seeking to really understand–to really, truly, understand–what’s possible, that we can make it a reality.

Good ideas come from out in the world. It’s our job to stumble onto them.

Creativity as intelligence and day dreaming

Creative thinking is a very interesting thing to discuss with people. It’s a topic that means different things to different people.

Discussing the topic of creativity with an artist is very different than conversing about it with a writer. Try to talk about creativity with a finance manager and you’ll be considered crazy. Yet, for all of the various perspectives and misunderstandings or uncertainties around creativity, there is one straightforward truth about the subject that anyone discussing it should concern themselves with.

The truth is this: creativity is one part intelligence and one part fearless day dreaming. That’s it!

Intelligence, in this case, points not to an individual’s overarching IQ, but instead focuses on an intelligence of a particular subject or mentality. Someone who is considered an expert in any field (whether it’s painting or garbage collecting) can be considered as someone who meets the required level of intelligence for creative thinking about that topic.

However, even with a perfect knowledge of any specific topic, no new ideas or breakthrough thoughts can occur for an individual unless he or she participates in fearless day dreaming. Consider the artist who has slaved away at their practice for years. Unless they are open to day dreaming of risky and far-fetched ideas, they’ll never be a creative success. An artist who paints merely with watercolors is an artist nonetheless, but the artist which envisions a canvas made of gelatin with paint injected to create a 3D masterpiece is the creative artist.

It’s the same with any field or industry or subject. Intelligence (of that particular topic or, conversely, in a specific way of thinking) combined with fearless day dreaming (where the ideas that come to mind are welcomed no matter how far-fetched), can provide any job or project or problem with a creative outlet.

Today, look at your own life and work, ask if you need more intelligence of that topic (or if you, perhaps, need to change your way of thinking), or if you simply need to day dream more. When it comes to creative thinking, those two elements are the ideal place to start.

What happens after you’ve got those two aspects figured out is the next most important part of creativity: action. But that’s a topic for another day.

Original photo by Meg Wills.