We tend to think of ideas as singular things. Our very idea of what it means to have an idea revolves around this notion of the idea being a single thing, which pops into our mind at the most opportunistic time.
In reality, ideas consist of many different constructs connected within our brains. When we have an idea what we really have is a connection between many, many different concepts in our mind. Ideas aren’t any one, singular thing. They are many things connected together into something more than any individual part. And of course we know all of this at some high level of thinking, but how often do we really stop to think about this fact?
To be more creative, more of the time, we must think about the individual parts that make up any one idea. Then we must imagine what happens to the larger sum if we change any one aspect of the parts.
Change any one point that makes up the idea, and you change the idea.
This is true for everything in our lives. If you change what you wear to work one day, that will affect how you think about the work you do. If you change what you eat for breakfast, how you spend your mornings, the route you take to work or school in the morning, how you talk to other people, or how you spend your downtime, you affect your entire idea of what you think about your life.
What would happen if you remove one aspect of something? What if you replaced one part with something completely different? What if you magnified it, enlarged it, or duplicated it? These are all questions that lead to creative insights. Not always, but when they’re asked often enough and about enough of the individual parts of any idea.
Often these subtle changes of understanding an idea occur on accident, when someone is only paying enough attention to catch the accident and reap the benefits (or disastrous effects). Penicillin was one such subtle change which revolutionized medicine. Chocolate chip cookies, too, were a subtle but happy accident. The Macintosh computer changed what the world thought was possible with computers and the airplane completely revolutionized all forms of transportation, communication, business, and shipping.
In my own life I’ve begun to conduct small weekly challenges in order to spur more of these small changes every day.
I know that my understanding of fundamental ideas is biased by my past experiences; I can’t always see the pieces that make up anything I’m looking at, or thinking about. So I’m trying to make small changes to see what bubbles up as a result.
At the beginning of every week, I set a new “challenge” for myself and spend the following five days seeing what happens when I follow through. Some challenges are more difficult than others, some are more familiar. The point isn’t to upend my life, only to help highlight what happens when I change certain parts of it.
I’ve gone vegan for a week, woken up at 5am to exercise, spent 30 minutes every night reading, and delivered hand-written letters to my partner every day (she, too, is participating in this weekly challenge experiment with me). The challenges we have lined up next fall everywhere on the spectrum from mundane to semi-absurd. We’ll take a new route to work every morning, meditate each day, not allow ourselves to go immediately home from work each night, only message each other in French (which neither of us speak well), paint every day, explore new parts of the city, write short novels daily, learn to knit and sew, take portraits of strangers, eat only with our bare hands, and more.
The changes we make don’t need to be dramatic or absurd. We don’t need to alter the biggest parts of anything in order to innovate on it, or to spur creative ideas out of it. What we need to do is change, something, anything, in order to see how the change affects the larger whole. When we make these changes, even imaginary ones, we start to see things from new and unique perspectives. That’s where the creative stuff really likes to hide.
And, of course, if you need some ideas for challenges to try, I wrote a book on that very thing: The Creativity Challenge.