Get inspired by exploring the map within your mind

Inspiration is what we get by exploring areas within our minds we haven’t been to in a while. It’s when we find something that resonates with things we already know, but which allows us to see those things from a new or refreshed perspective.

How then do we find things that might inspire us?

In order to get inspired, you’re likely to go where you feel you can reliably get it. A favorite hiding spot, a designated office space, or a particular activity. Maybe you have creative rituals which you’ve practiced to help you to “get in the zone” and set the stage for ideas to strike.

These types of activities help us to feel like we’re in a creative space and opening the door for ideas, but really these things aren’t guaranteed to inspire, no matter how reliable we lead ourselves to believe they are. And, in-fact, if we really want to be inspired, we should consider uncovering new methods for how to get it, not rely on past victories or behaviors.

It helps to think of your mind like a map. Over the span of your life, experiences turn into knowledge, and that knowledge takes the shape of landmarks and roadways in the map of your mind. Similar landmarks exist near one another, in themes you can imagine like small cities or biomes clustered together wherever ideas are alike.

Having knowledge exist in these thematic cities or clusters enables them to be found quickly by your mind. If you were looking for a camel in the real world, for example, you wouldn’t want to go to the Arctic to find it. Similarly, if your mind was seeking a specific idea or source of information, it has compartments where that information is likely to be held. Interpreting sensations like touch, vision, and hearing, takes place in the cerebrum. Balance and posture are controlled by the cerebellum. When you speak or write, Broca’s area in your frontal lobe is where that occurs. Whereas when you recall something from memory or listen to music, the temporal lobe controls those signals.

Your brain is a surprisingly optimized piece of magic machinery when it comes to categorizing and recalling concepts. Even if you are unaware of the compartmentalization, it’s there in the biology of you.

Whenever we think of an idea, our minds activate signals that travel around our mental maps until they find what they’re looking for. It’s estimated there are hundreds of thousands of connections firing in your brain every second. Each of those connections is like a car moving along a road toward a destination. Your brain is the map and the signals it uses to access and store information are the cars that traverse it.

So when you feel a connection to something, what’s happened is your mind has found a location in the map that it can relate the new knowledge to. A familiar landmark you can build out further. Or when we feel as though a sudden idea has clicked, that’s like discovering a shortcut between roads in your mind.

This means we can only ever understand the world in relation to what already exists in our mental maps. When we encounter something new in the world we can only understand it in relation to what we already know.

This helps explain why it can be difficult to feel inspired by things we don’t completely understand. Instead, we’re usually inspired by things we have at least some recognition of, or are able to relate to in some way. That recognition might be subconscious and hard to define, but whenever we feel as though something has inspired us, it means there’s part of the map within our brain that is being developed in a way we haven’t explored before.

When we feel inspired, what we’re really doing is uncovering new parts of our mental map.

To be inspired we must have some comprehension of what it is we’re experiencing or looking at. It’s why a toddler will struggle to use a toaster.

You will likely struggle to be inspired by something you have absolutely no concept of. If you’re a musician, you might struggle to understand abstract art unless you can find parts of the art—or the process which made it—which you can relate to your own experience. This helps explain why abstract art can be both so universally intriguing and off-putting; you’ll see in it what you can understand, or not.

The trick then isn’t to find things in the world you know will inspire you, but is instead to find in the world things you can relate to and pull from that. Herein lies the real challenge with creative inspiration: you must look where you’ve never been and find something there that’s familiar.

Whether it’s traveling to a new city to surround yourself in their designs or architecture. Picking up a book you’d never have considered reading just to see how the prose is conducted. Or conversing with someone who has an opinion opposite yours, for the sake of seeing how they see you.

To be creative is to know that your mental map will never be complete, that there will always exist gaps in what you can know and what you think you know. Then seeking out gaps in your map by exploring new things and experiences.

Every day is an opportunity to do something different

Today isn’t the same as yesterday. Why would you treat it the same?

It’s easy to think of today as just another day. After-all, the sun rose as it has before, the sky is still hanging above you, and everything else is, more or less, as it’s always been for most of us. But that’s not entirely true, is it?

If you take a day and throw yourself at it, just to see what happens as a result, you increase the likelihood of the day not being just another day, but something more.

It helps to remember that each great work of art began the same way: as an empty white canvas or sheet of paper. It wasn’t until the artist or craftsperson threw something unique onto the page that it began to shape into something new and unique.

Your days are the same way. Today can be the same canvas as yesterday, or you can decide to doodle something on it and see what you can make with it. Some days you’ll end up with just another mess of a canvas, some days you’ll start to see a work of art. But you don’t get to make the art until you see the canvas as an opportunity.

Imagine someone else with your ideas in order to see them through

Your challenge is this: the next time you find yourself faced with an idea — wondering “what if?” — go ahead and imagine what might happen if someone else approached you with the same idea, in its final form. Imagine them showing you exactly what you were going to do. How might you react? Would you be jealous? Frustrated with yourself? Is the feeling of seeing someone else build your idea enough to motivate you to carry the idea forward yourself?

Finding the motivation to see our creative ideas come to fruition can often be daunting, particularly when the idea is something we’ve never tried before. But if we can change our perspective and imagine a world where someone else took the risk, and what might happen when they do, that can be just enough to get us moving on the idea. Enough to take a small risk, or plan out next steps, anything to push the idea toward reality.

Imagining the idea as belonging to someone else also frees us up to envision how they might create it differently. Maybe they have more resources available than we do, in which case we can get a signal for what things we might need in order to really push the idea through. Or maybe the person we envision moving the idea forward does something more bold than we’d be comfortable with. Seeing the idea come to fruition — and whether or not it’s successful in our eyes — might be enough to help motivate us to see it through, and it also helps us better understand the potential of our idea.

Now think of that solution this other person showed you. What do you think of it?

If you find it interesting, but otherwise useless, that’s a good sign the idea needs more thought and attention to make it useful.

If it’s something you would cherish or enjoy and really feel connected to, that’s a good sign the idea is worthwhile.

If the idea is something that you, even alone, would honestly be interested in—even if it came from another person—at least then you know that pursuing the idea can do something for yourself. That alone can be fulfilling, but it’s also likely that it will be appealing to others too.

If you struggle to imagine anyone else coming up with your idea, an easy way to see what it might be like is to ask a friend to present the idea to you. Ask them to present it as though they had come up with the idea in the first place and followed it through, to make it a reality. Not only will doing so help you envision what the idea might feel like in reality, it can also help spur a new understanding of the idea itself, as your friend is likely to add their own twists and perspectives to it when they present it to you.

More often than not, we believe that ideas are ours, unique to us, and that imagining them coming from anyone else can feel like a betrayal. That isn’t true, and sounds silly when we think of it that way, but the notion of our unique ideas coming from anyone else can be just enough to block us from moving them through the idea stage to the execution one.

As a result: we sit by idly daydreaming about what could be, what we might be able to accomplish, or whether or not our ideas are worthwhile. But imagining someone else coming up with and executing on your idea first can help overcome that initial stage of stickiness.

Creativity doesn’t mean creating something from nothing…

The most important thing right now is what’s possible, not merely what you can imagine.

That is to say: creativity requires an idea to be realistic, possible, and yet still different. Without the possibility of being a reality, an idea isn’t creative: it’s imaginative. And while imagination is undoubtedly important when it comes to creativity, the two are completely different processes. When we conflate imagination with creativity, we set ourselves up for failure or disappointment.

It’s easy to believe that creativity is all about turning the impossible into reality, or about making something from nothing, or coming up with ideas out of thin air. But those things are not what exist within the realm of creativity. Instead, dreamy outcomes are what grow from imagination.

Without understanding the realistic aspect of creativity, many of us head into projects, brainstorms, and discussions with the wrong expectations. Believing creativity means that we must turn the impossible into something possible sets us up for failure, or burning out. Because that’s not what creativity is about.

We shouldn’t fear the blank page!

Creativity has little to do with what we can dream up, and everything to do with what we can uncover in the world around us.

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson describes this point as: the adjacent possible. The ideas that move forward must be founded in reality if they’re to become reality. The adjacent possible is the next realistic step an idea may take at any moment in time.

As an example: the automobile couldn’t have been invented before the combustion engine, or the horse-drawn carriage, or the wheel. Each invention must have had occurred, in succession, for the automobile to ever come into existence. It’d be impossible for anyone to invent the automobile before the idea of the carriage. That’s not to say it would have been impossible to imagine the automobile—a powerful machine capable of using wheels and something like steam or fire—to transport people.

In-fact: many of histories great inventors dreamed up machines well before they could be made a reality. Those ideas were rarely viewed as creative, but always looked at as ambitious, imaginative, and in some cases: crazy.

Creativity is seeing what can exist but does not yet. It’s exploring the edges of knowledge in order to uncover what we don’t know. That doesn’t mean inventing something from nothing, or pulling ideas out of thin air. It means seeing what’s there, imagining what’s not yet there, and filling in the gaps between the two.

Your craziest ideas are the ones that matter most

What’s the craziest idea you’ve ever had?

What made the idea feel so crazy to you? Was the idea too before it’s time? Too ambitious? Was it something far out of reach or something others wouldn’t understand?

If you’re like most people, you left the idea behind somewhere, didn’t you? You abandoned it once you realized just how crazy it seemed. We all abandon ideas that seem too crazy. But how often do you reflect on what makes these types of ideas crazy to begin with? More often than not, when faced with an idea we feel is too radical or too distant, we abandon it. Of course once the idea is gone, there’s no way to prove or disprove the craziness of it.

Without pursuing these ideas, we must face the possibility that our expectations and reservations about them may very well be unfounded. Wrong, even. What we believe to be crazy, out of reach, or impossible, may feel so only because we haven’t tried to make them anything but out of reach, impossible, and crazy.

Here’s the thing: most crazy ideas are rarely as unrealistic or unachievable as we make them out to be.

Some ideas, the ones that come mostly from imagination with little foundation in reality, are obviously too wild to become a reality (you can’t invent a machine to instantly zap you across outer space because the technology and knowledge to do so simply isn’t up to the task, yet). But other ideas, the ones we dream up in the middle of the night, or after a long conversation with a close friend, or when we feel defeated after a long day of school or work, those ideas are typically within our reach, despite our inclination of them being too crazy.

All it takes to shift a crazy idea into being a good one is a bit of energy, ambition, and continued curiosity. We must explore the map of our ideas if we’re to understand where they might take us.

I’m talking about those times when we find ourselves asking “What if?” Or when we stumble on an idea by accident only to say “This could never work.” We owe it to ourselves to get answers, to pursue the what-ifs, and to see if our ideas could work. If not for a definitive answer, then at-least for the energy of living a life well lived, well explored. When we pursue our ideas we discover things about ourselves and life we otherwise may never have stumbled on.

Selling your art in an online store, opening a real storefront in your favorite city, selling everything and traveling the world, whatever your crazy idea is: odds are it’s not as crazy as you might think. It only feels crazy because you’ve never pushed through it. A yellow watermelon seems like a crazy idea until you try it and realize it tastes like a normal watermelon, it’s just colored yellow. Supporting yourself through your creations or ideas can seem crazy, but what if it works? Would you take the risk and benefit from fulfilling the idea or gaining new knowledge around it?

We can’t expect to know whether or not an idea is absurd without first exploring it, because we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

When confronted with the crazy idea of using a hot air balloon to race around the globe, which no one had ever done before, Virgin founder Richard Branson used his personal mantra of “Screw it, let’s do it” and ended up setting a world record. (Branson’s life seems to be a series of acting on crazy ideas instead of running away from them, as he explains in his short biography of the apt title Screw It, Let’s Do It.)

Elon Musk, when faced with the crazy idea of creating a commercial company that would launch rockets into space, didn’t let anything stand in his way. The company he founded as a result of his pursuit, SpaceX, is one of the leading space companies in the world. To get here, Musk had to be willing to pursue the crazy. As explained in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance: “Musk has his version of the truth, and it’s not always the version of the truth that the rest of the world shares.”

Of course your crazy ideas don’t have to be as ambitious as breaking records or changing the future of the world. Even the small, crazy ideas can be immensely valuable if pursued.

The problem with many of our fears around “crazy” ideas is that the fears often come from only what we know, never what we don’t know. To live a more creative life we must not abandon our craziest ideas, but instead lunge forward with them tightly in our grasp. As Steve Jobs once famously said:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

Here’s to the crazy ones.

Written with Prompts.