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.

Creative isn’t something you become

It’s a process you learn to develop over time.

This distinction is important, particularly if you’re coming at creativity from a place of having been turned off from it: working or living in a culture or place that promotes routine and answers over the unknown and question seeking.

If you believe creativity is a state of being—that it’s on or off, something people have or don’t, something you must be empowered to flip on—you’re much more likely to accept excuses for why you can or cannot use it.

The common fallacy tends to be: “I can’t be creative because my boss/parent/partner won’t let me.” Of course creativity scoffs in the face of constraints. True creativity says: “they” won’t let us do things one way, so we’ll try another.

So what’s preventing you from being more creative here and now? What if it’s just your perception that creativity is a switch, or something to become or a state to achieve? How might we change the perception of creativity as being something you don’t turn on or off and instead being something you develop as a skill? Something that can work around any constraints? A skill that gets better over time, not worse?

Creativity—the ability to think of ideas which are both novel and valuable—is a skill anyone can learn. Much like math, science, writing, or a foreign language.

I remember thinking I’d never be able to do math, even of the basic variety. I grew up thinking mathematics were something you were either good at or not. I watched in school as students who excelled at math breezed past problems I could hardly understand, let alone solve.

But over time I learned math is a learnable skill: it was just the ways I was being taught that weren’t right for me.

I found “tricks” for solving problems, visual approaches that aligned more with my way of thinking. I learned when terminology and labels mattered and when they were just for show. I learned how to break the problems down into manageable chunks rather than trying to solve large problems at once. And I realized just how important it is to approach a problem with confidence, without which my mind wouldn’t even begin to view a problem as something I could solve.

The same attributes are all true of creativity. Creativity is a skill which can be learned by anyone and developed over time.

To do it requires learning small tricks for utilizing it: flipping a problem around, changing perspective, asking silly questions, finding a partner, or any of the other hundreds of thinking tricks.

Developing creativity also requires a clear perspective of what it is and what it isn’t, how it differs from innovation or imagination.

If you want to develop your creativity you too must improve your confidence of doing so. Without which it won’t matter how capable you are, you’ll find your mind simply don’t even want to try.

Creativity is a skill like any other, in that you can develop and improve it. It’s not a switch to be turned on or a trait you’re either born with or not. When you realize this, many more options for how to utilize your creativity become apparent.

Your own personal creativity

Creativity is the process of generating ideas that are both unique and valuable.

But who does an idea need to be valuable for exactly? Is it enough for an idea to be original to a small group or even just an individual? Must an idea be wholly original to the world at-large? Is there a scale where creativity tapers off: where ideas which are valuable to an individual are still creative, but not as creative as those which influence a grander audience?

In his timeless book Where Ideas Come From Steven Johnson explains the seven or so requirements for spurring creative thought: everything from serendipity and slow hunches, to large networks and competition.

One of the crucial drivers of creativity, Johnson explains, is the concept of an adjacent possible: an idea cannot readily come into existence—let alone consciousness of any individual—until certain circumstances make it available. There are very real steps toward any one creation or idea, invention and creative output are only possible within the bounds of the adjacent possible, the realm of possibilities in any given moment.

The adjacent possible means everything we take for granted today came into existence when it did partially because the technologies and resources available then made it so.

But resources and technology are not equally shared throughout the world or even within small groups. This is nowhere more apparent than the bustling city streets of American cities.

I'm living in the San Francisco area and here we have a large homeless population placed right next to those who live with excess. If an homeless person were to come up with a way to stay warm, get food, and work their way out of homelessness: is that creative? On the other end of the spectrum: if someone invents a new way for your car to drive itself to the gas station, is that creative?

In either case the ideas are both valuable and novel, but getting yourself food, shelter, and a job is on an entirely different level than inventing a new technology for car systems. The person who has those things may not think much of the idea, whereas the homeless person may not find any value in the autonomous driving technology.

We can begin to see here a scale of creativity.

There is undoubtedly creative things you are doing every day which are creative: the subtle way you optimize your day, the way you resolve problems at home or work, the things you create. Though each solution, creation, or resolution you come up with for your life may not be as unique or valuable for the larger population, each is still, unequivocally, creative.

We've become so accustomed to hearing of grand inventions or world-changing ideas, it's easy to conflate those things with what it means to be creative. The reality is even brining value to yourself with new ideas and experiences is absolutely creative. And yes, the larger ideas and inventions which influence and shape more lives are also creative, but that should not diminish the value of personal creativity.

It's important to learn how to master our own personal creativity. Learning how we generate creative ideas that are impactful in our own lives and seeing how those same processes might scale to larger, more impactful creativity.

Read this next: Big ideas never start out big

Your perception of time influences your creativity

In The River of Consciousness esteemed author and neurologist Oliver Sacks writes on the differences between "personal" time and "clock" time.

Undoubtedly you can recognize to the concept: personal time is the time we perceive as time passing—as entirely subjective observation—while clock time is what exists outside our own perception. One is a shared time while the other is generated almost entirely in our own, individual minds. As Sacks describes it:

"I have occasionally, it seems to me, lived a whole life between my first alarm, at 5:00 a.m., and my second alarm, five minutes later."

It's amazing how our minds perceive time in this way. Those who experience the pains of boredom know all-too-well how personal time can seem to slow to a crawl.

And anyone who has experienced what psychologist and creativity expert Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls "flow"—when we're so focused on a task time seems to flash by almost instantly, without our awareness of it having done so. While reading Sacks River of Consciousness I immediately thought of flow and how our perception of time equates to creativity.

We perceive time differently than what's on the clock for good reason: our minds are constantly processing millions of bits of information. Our consciousness is the mechanism which filters out irrelevant information or draws our attention to vital details. You may learn to tune-out the constant buzz of a busy room, but the moment someone mentions your name you can tune-into whoever might be calling out.

When we're bored our minds need stimulus so our consciousness loosens itself and stretches out time, where when we're focused our minds need to shut out stimulus, therefore decreasing our ability to perceive the passing of time.

This functioning—of loosening inhibitions when it comes to boredom and restricting them when it comes to states of flow—is also what occurs during creative thinking. We're more inclined to come up with many divergent ideas when we are open to stimulus and allowing our minds to run wild, as they do when we're bored.

When it comes to states of flow, we're less likely to be able to generate many ideas because we'll be much more oriented around convergent concepts: focusing in rather than opening up our minds. In either case the results are caused primarily by the control of endorphins in the mind. More endorphins leads to rapid time while fewer restricts time.

Each end of the spectrum leads to different results, the middle—or neutral—state is a balance, Sacks explains: 

"Physiologically, neural normality reflects a balance between excitatory and inhibitory systems in the brain, a balance which, in the absence of drugs or damage, has a remarkable latitude and resilience."

We can see the creative effects of a loosened, uninhibited, consciousness when we observe someone taking drugs or caffeine; clock time remains the same yet the mind races through possibilities.

The inverse is also true through similar means: those who take downers or consume alcohol experience a dulling of time.

Are there other means we can get the same results—of altering our perception of time to benefit our creativity—without having to digest drugs or alcohol?

The answer is undoubtedly yes: we can put ourselves into situations where we're bored by choice, removing easy no-brainer activities from our routines and even leaving our phones in another room for a while. There are other means too however, as Csíkszentmihályi explains in his book Finding Flow:

"What one needs to learn to control attention... In principle any skill or discipline one can master on one’s own will serve: meditation and prayer if one is so inclined; exercise, aerobics, martial arts for those who prefer concentrating on physical skills. Any specialization or expertise that one finds enjoyable and where one can improve one’s knowledge over time. The important thing, however, is the attitude toward these disciplines. If one prays in order to be holy, or exercises to develop strong pectoral muscles, or learns to be knowledgeable, then a great deal of the benefit is lost.
"The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention."