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.

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.

Two ways to improve how you personally have ideas

“Do not try to change yourself, you are unlikely to succeed. Instead: work hard to improve the way you already perform.” — Peter Drucker

If you aren’t aware of how you generate ideas, you’ll always struggle to come up with new ones when you need them most.

As much as we may want to believe in a formula for coming up with creative ideas, the reality is each of us develop and generate ideas in an entirely personal way. The best advice you’ll ever hear about how to be creative is just that: find the techniques that work for you.

Your brain may be physically similar to mine and some other 7.5 billion people, but the small connections that make up what’s in your skull are undeniably different than those in mine. Because of your unique life experiences and original perspective, how you think will always be somewhat different than how anyone else does. Your brain is very much uniquely yours, so are the ways in works.

So why would we rely on the exact same techniques for generating ideas or being creative? What works for me may not work for you. What “clicks” in your brain may not do much to connect in mine.

How do we learn what works best for us?

Document the experience of having an idea.

Whenever you feel a moment of “aha!” get into the habit of writing down not only the idea, but also what you were doing when it occurred. Where were you? How did you feel? What had you done just before the idea struck? When did you first feel the idea developing? Why might the idea have struck then rather than another time?

Even if the idea doesn’t turn out to be your best idea, or even a realistically feasible one, the act of having an idea that catches you off guard is valuable. You’d benefit by writing down anything you can about the experience.

Then look back through your notes. A few weeks of notes are helpful, but six months to a year should give you a really strong sense for how you personally generate ideas.

When you look through your writing, take note of any trends or surprising points that stand out. Where are you when ideas usually strike? Are there ever moments you encounter ideas more readily than others? Are there people or circumstances that prompt you to generated ideas? Where might you need support or otherwise be lacking what you need to generate more ideas, more of the time?

Of course one of the easiest ways to be mindful of how you generate ideas is to journal often. But self reflection is just one way to become aware of how you generate ideas. Another way is through feedback analysis.

Get feedback from those you’re closest to.

It helps to get an outside perspective on your creativity too. Talk to those closest to you—friends, family, co-workers—about how you act whenever you seem to have an idea. Ask them for feedback on your creative process and habits.

Have they noticed any peculiar behaviors whenever you’re about to have an idea? Do they feel a shift in energy or focus when they’re around you and an idea strikes? Have they ever felt inspired or motivated by your creativity, or vice-versa?

We may not fully understand everything that goes on in the recesses of our brains, but through personal reflection and feedback analysis you can start to get a sense for how you generate ideas. The next time you need to spur new ideas, you’ll be better equipped because you’ll have a more intimate sense of what does, and does not, help you do just that.

Limit what’s possible and you’ll have more ideas

The painter always sits down with the tools he has available to him, in front of a canvas with a set size, knowing what his abilities will enable him to create. A chef comes to the table prepared with ingredients and supplies at the ready. It doesn’t matter what the specifics of the constraints are in either case. What matters is that the creative knows there are limits and has familiarized themselves with them.

A problem many people face when it comes to thinking creatively is that the possibilities seem infinite.

There’s so much that might be that it becomes paralyzingly to try and imagine what could be. Anything that can be dreamed can be a solution to a problem. In our imagination, anything goes.

But that’s not how creativity works, that’s how imagination works. And while the two are inexplicably linked, the distinctions between the two are important to learn.

Creativity deals with what is possible based on real-world constraints. Imagination is limited to our mental constraints or knowledge. Imagination can influence creativity, and creativity can exist within imagined scenarios, but the distinction between the two is what enables or hampers our ability to use them.

If you approach anything with the intent of being creative, but fail to research and acknowledge the constraints you’re dealing with, you’re going to run into disappointment. Expecting to be creative without limits isn’t being creative, it’s being imaginative.

Instead, moving into a problem or space with the full knowledge that creativity will be grounded in what you know and have available to you is going to power you through it. How exactly do you do that? One tried-and-true approach I’ve found is to make a list outlining everything you know about the problem or project, along with everything you have available to you in order to get through it.

Such a simple list allows you to create a resource you can refer to throughout the work of ideation, not from a place of anything-goes, but from a real and sound foundation. And the list you make doesn’t have to be anything formal or even structured. A quick list of top-of-mind constraints and considerations can do more for your creativity than a well thought-out and formal list of pros, cons, or possibilities.