How does the idea make you feel?

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When we want to validate our ideas the most obvious way is to ask someone else what they think of the idea.

“Is this a good idea or not?”

But thinking and feeling are two distinctive things, and each represents a different interpretation of what we experience.

Love, for example, is an often illogical or irrational feeling. Then it’s difficult to feel anything about an Excel spreadsheet (unless you’re a math nerd). Yet each of these things serves a distinct purpose and provides us with meaningful experiences or information. Similarly: ideas can be illogical or feeling-less. Creative ideas are usually fall into the former category: illogical, especially when first encountered.

When we ask someone what they think about our ideas, we’re asking them to logically look at the concept and tell us whether or not they can comprehend it. But the problem with many creative ideas—those which are truly novel and valuable—is they’re not the type of thing you can immediately, logically, wrap your head around. They’re often confusing, daunting, or seemingly crazy at first. History has given us ample examples of thinkers who were “ahead of their time.”

Imagine trying to evaluate the concept of an elevator, or tablet computer, or car, from a person from the 1800s. They wouldn’t have any basis from which to understand what you’re even talking about, let alone critique the idea well. Similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to get someone’s interpretation of Moby Dick if they had never read anything like it before, or of Jackson Pollock if they had never seen the style (and knew nothing of the artist).

When asking someone else what they think of our idea, we may be asking them to respond to what they don’t understand. How could they? If it was obvious, they would have thought of the idea.

Instead, we should seek to not validate our ideas by asking “What do you think about this?” or “Do you think this is a good idea?” Rather, we should ask how the idea makes someone feel.

Feelings can often help us better understand where gaps in our ideas might be, or what cognitive bridges we’ll need to build when sharing our ideas. Feelings are a far better guiding light when it comes to building new concepts than more logical thought processes. If the person we’re interacting with feels confused, overwhelmed, or frustrated by the idea, that’s a good sign that we need to work to simplify the concept, or make it easier to relate to another, existing, idea. If the feedback we get is that the idea excites the other person, or makes them feel optimistic, or hopeful, or another positive feeling, that’s a good indicator we may be onto something worth pursuing further.

The next time you want to validate whether or not your creative idea is worthwhile: ask your audience how the idea makes them feel, not whether they think it’s good or bad.

Doing so will get you closer to the feedback you need to evolve the idea, not merely scrap it or call it a success.

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.

Ideas are for sharing, not sheltering

Too often we hide our ideas out of fear they might break or be torn apart before they’ve had a chance to shine. We want our ideas to be perfectly polished before we share them with anyone, before we line them up in front of what could very well be a firing squad. We fear criticism and judgement and the possibility that our ideas aren’t as great as we want them to.

Where does this fear come from and is it possible the feeling of wanting to shelter our ideas is not entirely rational?

If we think of our ideas as reflections of ourselves—our capabilities, our beliefs, our IQ—then of course it’s going to be scary to expose them to others. The last thing any of us want is to be told we’re not capable, that our beliefs are wrong, or that we overlooked something obvious. We don’t want to be dumb or wrong, so we shelter our ideas until we’ve had a chance to ensure they’re “good enough.”

The trick is that ideas are never good enough until they face the light of other perspectives and opinions. Any idea can be viewed as good if it exists only within your head. It’s when the idea gets let loose in the world that it has a chance to grow, strengthen, and evolve.

When we step back and see our ideas as being their own objects, not pieces of ourselves or our intelligence, it becomes easier to share them.

And sharing our ideas matters because, despite what our fears may make us believe, when ideas are hammered and cut and torn apart they inevitably end up becoming stronger, not weaker.

The reality is that our ideas can never be destroyed, every idea you have is nearly indestructible. Once you’ve had a really good idea, it isn’t going to go anywhere. The idea will stay with you in some form or another, in the recesses of the complex biological machine that is your brain.

Our ideas simply cannot be destroyed. Just ask anyone with a strong political or religious idea, or consider the last time a catchy song got stuck in your head. Once an idea takes hold in your mind, it’s hard to get rid of it.

What happens when we expose our ideas is they don’t get destroyed, they evolve. That evolution is the process that makes ideas worthwhile, real, not merely imaginary beliefs sheltered within the confines of our imaginations.

When we expose our ideas to criticism and feedback the ideas don’t really get destroyed or damaged, they strengthen and grow. What can happen is ideas change, shaped by the opinions and information we get from others. And these changes may weaken *our* initial perspective or vision of an idea, but the fundamental idea will still be there in the foundation of whatever new or different ideas come from the feedback we get. Better, faster, bigger, stronger. If we’re open to the feedback.

And, of course, we have to remember that the feedback we get on our ideas isn’t feedback on us. We are not our ideas; our ideas are our ideas. And they need the ability to distance themselves from us if they’re to really grow.

Nothing happens with your ideas if you shelter them. If you wait for perfection you’ll be waiting your whole life. Instead: speed up the process of improving your ideas by getting them out into the world where they’ll have a chance to improve and expand based on the feedback they incur.

Creative ideas come when you consider parts of the whole

The best way to have a good idea is to have many ideas. And arguably the best way to have many ideas is to expand your perspective of the thing or space you’re working with.

You can expand your perspective in a number of ways: by talking with others to hear their ideas and thoughts, by reading perspectives of history, or by adjusting your perspective of any particular thing or circumstance.

Of all the inspirational options available to a creative thinker, it's the last one—of taking the time to expand perspective through attention and imagination—that is easiest for uncovering ideas. All it takes is the willingness to observe and question what’s already in front of you, that’s it.

You can expand your perspective by breaking apart the thing you’re looking at or the space around it, by asking questions or zooming in/out either literally or figuratively. In doing so you open up the possibility of nearly endless ideas because the complexity of any single thing is the sum of its parts and history.

Looking at a wall is straight-forward enough, but changing your perspective to see what the wall is made of, who made it, or its history, means you have a vast library of information to consider when drumming up ideas.

You can look at any thing and consider each of the attributes of it, then go further to consider the attributes of those attributes and so on. A shoe is a shoe until you really look at it and it’s parts. The sole, the shoelaces, the tongue and toe tip. Further into any of those parts continues expanding your perspective of what makes a shoe into a shoe: the fabrics, plastics, and other materials.

Or consider the patterns used for stitching the materials of a shoe together: how do the patterns strengthen or weaken the shoe as a whole? How do the materials interact with each other: is a single, long thread stitched through two parts stronger than many shorter threads? Where might glue have been used? What other materials or patterns could be used for each component? How does changing any of those influence the larger whole?

Such questions are how companies like Nike were able to invent the Flyknit shoe.

Nike looked at the concept of a shoe and began thinking about using high-strength threads sewn using long stitches rather than short ones to shape the bulk of the body. Focusing on threads and long stitches was a novel move in the shoe industry, one that propelled innovation in the company and industry as a whole. An added benefit of relying heavily on the threads and stitches was a decrease in manufacturing costs, less use of materials overall, and the bonus of having the shoe designed around key points of support (something overly rubber or plastic shoes cannot do).

These types of ideas are possible even if you don’t work in the shoe industry, because all you need to do is observe, question, and imagine.

Often a novice will enter an industry and revolutionize it by observing and questioning. It’s how Elon Musk has sparked innovation in electric cars, space transport, and more. It’s the same approach Steve Jobs took to personal computing and Jeff Bezos has taken to online shopping. Even artists such as Olivo Barbieri used this approach to push “tilt-shift” photography into the mainstream.

The way each of these individuals were able to come up with such novel and useful ideas wasn’t through some otherworldly intellect or creative genius. Each merely worked diligently to adjust their perspective of what a thing could be or how it might work, then imagined alternatives. They were able to imagine many different ideas then narrow down to the most useful ones.

In your own life and work you can generate many new ideas by looking at the attributes—the texture, function, parts and components, even history—of any thing, then imagining what would happen if any of them changed. If you replaced something, removed it entirely, or used more of the attribute (like Nike did with their thread-designed shoes).

If you want to have many ideas: don't merely look at a thing or problem in its entirety, instead consider the sums of the whole and how changing any one of them will change the larger parts.

All ideas want is to fit

Ideas are out there waiting to be captured or imagined. They travel around us in all different sorts of ways: from communication to entertainment to dreams.

All ideas want is to find a place to fit, to exist. There may be ideas that have been trying to fit for a very long time, only when things are right and ready can the ideas fit into place, into existence.

Steven Johnson calls this need to fit “the adjacent possible” in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson explains that what’s possible at any certain, specific, point in time changes depending on the circumstances around it. The iPhone was only possible ten years ago because everything it took to make it exist finally aligned. You couldn’t have invented the microwave 5,000 years ago, it would have been impossible to contemplate let alone imagine. The same goes for computers, televisions, radios, gaming consoles, and so on.

Once the technologies behind each idea became available, the ideas readily race toward existence. Even now, as you read this, there are ideas waiting to be not constructed or imagined, but simply found. Like pieces to a puzzle that has yet to be put together.

Ideas merely want to exist. But if there’s nowhere for an idea to go, if you’re not looking for it—to help find a place for it to fit—it moves along. Ideas desire to fit in somewhere.

In her book Big Magic, the brilliant writer Elizabeth Gilbert refers to this desire for ideas to exist as simply: muse. Ideas want to feel wanted. Gilbert says ideas will wait for you, like a stranger visiting your home, until you welcome them in. She writes:

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”

Your job as someone who creates and tinkers and ruminates is simply to make room for ideas to fit. To understand where they might come from and then open yourselves to them. If ideas want to exist, it’s your job as a creative thinker to help them. One way is simply to ask a lot of questions. qQuestions create a place for answers to fit.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard teacher and author, explains: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

Ideas want to exist, you have to create a space for them to fit. Asking a lot of questions, being open to new experiences, and freeing-up your mind, are how you’re going to do it.