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.

How to properly incubate your ideas

Photo by  Hutomo Abrianto  on  Unsplash .

I’ve long been a proponent for action as a crucial part of the creative process.

Action, I’ve often exclaimed, is a major trait which sets the daydreamer apart from the inventor, or the would-be artist from the gallery-featured savant. Ideas are plentiful and fairly easy to come by. You often don’t need much to stumble on a valuable or unique idea; sometimes you do. What’s vastly more difficult than having ideas or daydreaming about possibilities is doing something with the ideas you do have. You can’t simply sit around and expect your ideas to evolve into successes on their own. You can’t really know the value of an idea until you do something with it (to validate it or prove it wrong).

Today I still believe in the importance of action when it comes to creative ideas. If you want to be recognized (or even simply acknowledged) as a creative individual, you have to do something with the ideas you have. Ideas are worthless until we get them out of our heads to see what they can do.

But there’s another component to creativity that requires us to explicitly not act: incubation.

Incubation is a subconscious stage within the creative process, one of four to five total stages, depending on who you talk to. According to the renown creative theorist and psychologist Graham Wallas, incubation plays a crucial role in the first part of the process of creative thought. His model states that the four stages are, in order: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, and Verification. For incubation, work we immerse ourselves in is moved to the recesses of our mind’s processing. Wikipedia describes incubation as “a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time.”

On the outside, incubation appears to be a creative stage in which nothing happens. Because of this, incubation is often shunned or looked down on as laziness. The reality is far from the truth: the incubation stage of creativity is often critical to a preferable outcome.

Consider that the notion of incubation has been studied in-depth as part of scientific research and academic labs since the 1920s. Researchers test the role of incubation by often splitting research participants into two groups: one which receives a short break between creative tests or tasks, and another group which gets no such break.

Repeatedly studies have shown that a short break often results in more creative output; far more creative than if you do nothing at all or focus on daunting tasks. Getting time away from a problem or project, it turns out, often enables the subconscious brain to work on that project free of conscious pressures.

But incubation is a tricky thing. You can’t, for example, expect ideas to incubate if you distract yourself with cognitively heavy or difficult tasks. Nor will you end up with creative insights if you distract yourself with mind-numbing entertainment.

To properly let ideas incubate, you must participate in lightweight tasks which keep your mind engaged but not overwhelmed. This point has been demonstrated in many studies, including one by researchers from the University of California Santa Barbra and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences. In the study—titled Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation—researchers note that when participants were instructed to complete a creative task they performed better if they were given a lightweight, simple task after being shown the creative task but before attempting to complete it. Those who were given a simple task between the work performed better than not only those who had to work on an arduous challenge, but also those who merely rested.

The researchers summarize their findings:

“The study reported here demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task far more than did taking a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no break. Notably, this improvement was observed only for repeated-exposure problems, which demonstrates that it resulted from an incubation process rather than a general increase in creative problem solving.”

That is to say: the two conditions that yield the most creative results—at least for participants in the study—are first, being primed on the task at hand (immersion in the problem or work-to-be-done) and second, distance from the work or problem with a lightweight task, such as doing the dishes (or similar chores), going for a walk, reading a book, planning an outfit for the next day, making coffee, or journaling. Really anything that’s going to challenge your mind without putting too much pressure on it is what will provide the most value for incubation.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all creative ideas come from brute force (or the just as misleading myth that creative ideas come from “nowhere”), but we cannot overlook the value incubation plays on the process. In reality the best ideas come from being primed or deeply embedded in a space, task, or problem, followed by a short break that challenges the mind in a simple way before attempting to complete the task.

If you want to incubate your ideas: give yourself the time to step away from the task you need to add creativity to. You may find that when you come back to the task, you’re more capable of thinking differently about it than you were before. All because your mind has been primed to do the work, then given the space and energy to subconsciously “connect the dots” needed to do the work.

In this way, creativity is less the flipping of a light switch and more the painting of a picture. Slow and deliberate, with a lot more work happening beneath the layers we see at the end of the work.

Overcoming the factors that often keep us from being creative

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Ultimately we are the thing which keeps us from being creative. We, ourselves, are only to blame.

Though excuses are plentiful, creativity by nature asks us to push past or through any excuse we may come up with. We overcome these excuses by maneuvering around constraints, ignoring status quo, or destroying expectations and even core beliefs.

This all makes sense, as the source of creativity in any event is always our own mind. That’s where we process everything in and around us, the world outside our minds exists, but it’s only by being processed within our brains that we come to understand and comprehend it (or don’t). Everything occurs within the mind, as David Eagleman so elegantly writes in his book Incognito:

”Your brain is encased in absolute blackness in the vault of your skull. It doesn't see anything. All it knows are these little signals, and nothing else. And yet you perceive the world in all shades of brightness and colors. Your brain is in the dark but your mind constructs light.

Because everything we think and believe and process takes place within our minds, the barriers or factors which inhibit our creativity are all within our minds too.

Our existing knowledge and experience, our ability to question and seek answers or pursue opportunity, our energy and taste for risk, our relationship to fear and doubt, all play a part in our ability to think creatively and have worthwhile ideas. Each exists in the form of bodily networks or systems, behaviors, habits, and beliefs.

When we feel stuck or hindered what we’re really feeling is uncertainty, fear, doubt, confusion, or simply an encounter with something we do not know how to move around (it’s worth noting that just because we can’t see a way around an obstacle does not mean there isn’t a way around it).

Undoubtedly there are factors outside ourselves that play a part in our ability to think creatively too, through their influence and affect on us. As an example: if you grew up in an environment which discouraged risk taking, question asking, or being open to change and differences, you’re much less likely to seek those things out as you age and mature. It just won’t be part of your “nature.”

Or if you spend all of your time and energy on familiar routines or efforts which benefit from the feelings of comfort and safety but detract from the hints which might otherwise motivate or inspire you, you’re unlikely to begin any pursuit of meaningful ideas. You’ll be fixated on what you know and what feels comfortable, less inclined to pursue even slightly risky endeavors; this despite the fact that a slight change to behavior or routine might yield hugely impactful insights to your perception of the world or the work you do.

As you can see, there are certainly factors outside ourselves which inhibit or otherwise influence our creativity. If we do not surround ourselves with inspiration or motivation—examples of the creative process in action—we may never feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to do those things too. If you never see someone think creatively, it’s hard to know how to do it yourself. If you never learn about something that’s possible, you may not think of it at all (let alone whether it’s impossible or not).

Still, in the end, it all—the inspiration and inhibition—take place within our minds. We are the central conductor with which the mind plays. And when it comes to creativity we are setting our own limits; no one else and nothing else can prevent us from “thinking differently” (with perhaps the exception of mental disability or disease).

All we need in order to embark on a creative pursuit is exactly that: think differently. Think in different terms, think of different tools, different modes of functioning, of seeing the world. And there are thousands of ways we can do this in any situation. (If you’re really stuck, I wrote a book filled with 150 challenges for thinking differently.)


So, if this is all true, why do we not act creatively in everything we do? Why do we struggle to generate truly creative ideas when we need or want them most? Why aren’t we all creative, all the time?

The reality is that creativity isn’t always necessary, the process of thinking creatively will not always yield something worthwhile in a moment, and it’s often much easier to stick with what we know and how we’ve always thought than it is to try something differently.

Creativity requires energy and even then does not ensure an energetic return on investment. It took Edison and his team more than 1,000 iterations to find the perfect filament for the lightbulb. Henry Ford famously failed numerous times in his attempt to manufacture a car. Apple ended up building and selling a beautifully contained computer that consistently cracked and ultimately failed.

Then there’s the greatest factor which keeps us from pursuing creativity: fear. Fear of rejection, of embarrassment, or failure. Fear can prevent us from having being creatively driven, from even trying to think differently or to take a risk or to be open to experiences. Nobody wants to fail or to make mistakes, because those things hurt and can damage (temporarily or permanently) or reputation or ego. And because fear is such an ingrained part of human nature it’s often the most common blocker for exploring a new idea or pursuing a unique opportunity.

When I first started writing about creativity here on Creative Something (more than 11 years ago now!) I would often be asked to help someone whose boss or manager or peer wasn’t “allowing” them to be creative. I’d be told: “I want to do something creative but this other person isn’t letting me, they shut down every idea I have and I’m afraid if I try anything I’ll lose my job.” Or someone would email me saying: “I want to be creative at school but I don’t have anyway to express myself how I want to!”

My response to those types of messages comes down to what I started this post by stating: the only thing stopping you from being creative is you.

Someone told you that you couldn’t do a certain thing? So what, use that creative brain of yours and come up with an alternate plan. Unsure of how to move an idea forward? Try something, anything, and if that doesn’t work try something completely different. Not sure how to do something? Talk to others, read a unique book, break routine and go somewhere new to be inspired.

Nobody is stopping you from being creative but yourself.

The best of Creative Something 2018

Back in 2009 I started a tradition with this blog: at the end of each year I would look back through the posts for that year and find the ones that got the most attention—likes, comments, shares, and so on. I’d round-up the top posts and share them as a “best of” to help spark that creative fire in myself in preparation for the next year.

My hope is that by sharing these top posts, you too will be able to find some inspiration or motivation to bring more creativity into your life in the new year.

This year I continue the tradition, celebrating 10 years completed of writing here! Here are the top posts of Creative Something for 2018!

  1. Your perception of time influences your creativity

  2. Creativity isn’t something you become

  3. Your own personal creativity

  4. Why pursue creative ideas, even when you’re bound to be wrong

  5. Ideas are for sharing, not sheltering

  6. Why starting helps get us unstuck

  7. Why we so often look to art for creative inspiration

As always, you can see all posts from the blog in the archive page. Or explore best of posts from past years.

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.