When we hear stories of people having world-changing ideas, often, they are told in a way that makes them sound like breakthroughs or sudden flashes of insight. They are portrayed as light bulbs or as bolts of lightning, and often, we hear stories of what sparked the idea, be it a falling apple or an overflowing bathtub.
While this notion is somewhat romantic and certainly persistent, it turns out that this may not be howideashappen.
How Ideas Happen
This is a subject that has been studied extensively by psychologists and scientists, and almost universally, the reality turns out to be quite different. Howideashappen, it would seem, do not normally appear suddenly as if from nowhere. Instead, they tend to arrive quietly and not fully formed. Usually, ideas start as hunches, nudges, or throwaway thoughts. It’s when these ideas and thoughts are allowed to gestate and grow that they will emerge as something fully formed and game changing.
Einstein’s A’ha Moment
Take Einstein’s theory of relativity, for instance. Often, you hear the story of how he imagined ‘riding’ a beam of light and looking back on the world, which, suddenly, made everything click into place. But don’t forget that he had been thinking about this problem for years first and had actually published the theory in incomplete form as the ‘Special Theory of Relativity’. That ‘a-ha’ moment was only the last piece of the puzzle. Likewise, the iPhone is really just an iteration of the iPod, and when it was first announced, it didn’t even have the app store that arguably led to its success.
There’s No ‘I’ in Inspiration
Okay there is, but metaphorically, there’s not. The point is that research and surveys show that in most cases, ideas are team efforts. Remember, ideas work best when they are allowed to gestate and grow. One of the best ways to incubate these ideas is by talking about them.
Inspiration arrives when we combine different ideas and when our thoughts travel from one topic to another, leading to unique insights and combinations. This very closely mirrors the way that conversations evolve over time, as we move seamlessly from one topic to another.
Discuss Your Ideas
So, if you want to encourage the creative flow of ideas, the best way to do it is by discussing them. This is how ideas happen. Don’t make the mistake of trying to come up with the next big thing overnight, all on your own. As it turns out, it just doesn’t work like that!
The Neuroscience of Creativity and Invention
Creativity often seems like something mystical or magical. Sometimes, it can feel as though creativity doesn’t even come from us, but rather, that it descends upon us in a blinding flash of light or a lightning bolt.
But creativity is far from magical. In fact, it can be boiled down to some rather simple neuroscience and most scientists agree on the specifics of how it occurs.
There’s No Such Thing as Creativity
Effectively, research suggests that there is no such thing as creativity, or rather, that original ideas are not so original as they may at first appear. Creative ideas are now believed to almost always be the result of old ideas and thoughts being combined in novel ways.
So, a new story you thought of will likely be based on old stories you heard, combined to make something new. Likewise, if you have a new idea for a logo design, there’s a good chance it’s actually a combination of old images you’ve seen combined with the text of that logo. In terms of neuroscience, this is the result of different ideas combining in your brain.
How the Brain Works
To understand how this works, it can help to first understand the basics of how the brain works. Fundamentally, our experiences of our own thoughts and the world around us are caused by neurons in the brain, or “brain cells”, firing. Brain cells are just like other cells in the body, except they are all interconnected by tendrils and branches called dendrites and axons. Each connection represents a memory or a combined idea, and new connections are formed every time two of them fire simultaneously.
When we’re relaxed and we let our brains “wander”, this essentially means we’re exploring these connections and turning inwards to our memories and ideas rather than focusing on the data coming in. The most extreme example of this is when we’re sleeping, and dreams form out of random combinations of memories, experiences, qualia, and feelings.
Inspiration then strikes and we get ideas when two neurons fire at the same time and reveal a new connection or a new combination of thoughts. What results is the birth of a new idea or a new creative work, though in actuality, it’s all about old ideas firing simultaneously to create something unique.
What does this tell us about inspiration? It tells us that input is crucial for output. So read, watch, explore, and think. The more you experience, the more inspiration you will enjoy!
How to Take Inspiration Without Copying
They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but when someone actually copies one of our ideas, flattered tends to be the last thing we feel! Instead, it’s frustrating when someone else benefits from what should have been our unique idea, and it makes the copier look bad for having no imagination of their own. This is why it’s considered sacrilegious to copy a friend’s choice of wedding venue or color scheme!
But taking inspiration from others is a different matter entirely. That is flattering, and it’s also a great way to create something new. Indeed, most schools of psychology believe that all original, creative works are actually based upon existing ideas, just combined.
So the question is, how do you successfully navigate that fine line between inspiration and copying and ensure you stay on the right side of it?
Direct Copying Versus Homage
The first thing to do is to make sure that you aren’t getting all your inspiration from one place. If you have been to someone’s wedding or visited someone’s website, and you wish yours was the same, then consider taking one thing that works from them and one thing only.
In other words, don’t have the same venue, same color scheme, and same first song. Take one thing you liked, asking permission first, of course, and then, be careful to demonstrate novelty in other areas.
Asking permission is important, but so is giving credit where it’s due. You can do this by making something an homage or a nod to your inspiration. You’ll often see films that do this. When a film has taken heavy inspiration from another blockbuster, it will often acknowledge this by including a line lifted from that film or by having a character mention that they’re a fan of the director. This way, the filmmakers are winking at the audience, while acknowledging that something wasn’t theirs. This way, it feels much more like flattery and much less like copying.
Finding the Feeling
Better yet is to be inspired by themes, feelings, and tones. Be inspired by abstract concepts, rather than by concrete choices. A great example of this might be the colors on a website or at a wedding. Don’t lift the color choices directly, but consider choosing contrasting colors in the same vein as your inspiration, or ‘cool’ colors, or ‘warm’ colors.
Likewise, if you went to a wedding you found was very lighthearted and fun, as opposed to formal and serious, then you can try and emulate that tone without taking anything directly from your inspiration. Create something that feels like the inspiration, rather than something that looks like the inspiration.
How to Use a Moodboard to Get Inspiration
When you start on a new project, you can often find yourself getting stuck before you even manage to get started. It’s like a type of writers’ block, except it affects every kind of project – from website designs to wedding planning to interior design.
The problem is getting that initial spark that will subsequently lead to all the other ideas coming through like an avalanche. It’s about going from nothing to something and pulling that something effectively out of ‘thin air’.
But designers and artists who do this sort of thing for a living need a way to reliably overcome this problem on a consistent basis. One tool they use to this end is the ‘moodboard’. Let’s take a look at what that is and how it can help you.
What is a moodboard?
Essentially, a moodboard is a type of collage. This means you’ll be taking different images and arranging them on a single page. They can be cuttings, or they can be snapshots taken from websites. The idea is to find everything that’s related to the topic or thing you’re trying to create.
So, if you were making a website for a fitness company, you might create your collage using screenshots of other fitness company websites, imagery related to fitness that could inspire a logo, inspirational photos of people working out, etc. Collect as many things that inspire you as possible, and from there, you should have a single page full of inspiration.
Why moodboards are so effective
When you’re looking for an abstract direction for a design or project that you can’t quite put into words, moodboards offer the perfect solution. When you have all these things arranged on a single page, you should start to notice that common themes and ideas start to emerge. This, in turn, should allow you to start getting a feel for the direction that you want to take for your site.
You aren’t copying the imagery you’ve taken. Instead, you’re combining it into something unique but inspired by the best examples in your niche.
This actually corresponds nicely with the way we know that creativity works, by combining existing ideas to create something new. If you can take all your inspiration and put it in one place, you should find that ideas start flowing and you overcome that creative block!
The Key to Finding Inspiration – Inspiration Walks
Looking to find inspiration for the next great novel? For your musical masterpiece? For your next business idea? Often, the best way to find it is just to go for a walk: an ‘inspiration walk’!
What is an Inspiration Walk?
The idea behind an ‘inspiration walk’ is to leave the confines of the home or office to go for a stroll and, in doing so, to discover the inspiration you’re looking for.
So, why might this work? There are several reasons that inspiration often lies in the great outdoors. For starters, walking is a mindless activity that has been shown to activate the brain’s default mode network. The default mode network is a series of brain areas that kick into gear whenever we’re doing something that doesn’t require a lot of higher-order thinking (thinking with the prefrontal cortex).
This type of brain activity is implicated in daydreaming and often leads to the discovery of great ideas. In fact, it’s thought that Einstein was in this brain state when he discovered his world-changing Special Theory of Relativity. Effectively, walking lets our mind wander, and this is what often leads to the best ideas.
Another key aspect of going for a walk is that it takes us outside and lets us explore our environment. This works best when we walk in a natural setting, which has been shown to trigger creativity all on its own.
Essentially, when we’re relaxed, this also allows our mind to wander and explore different ideas and memories. In turn, this leads to new creative breakthroughs and insights. This is the opposite of when we’re in a stressed and focused state, which causes us to focus on just one thing at the expense of other, related ideas.
Being in scenic settings has been shown to trigger creativity because, to our primitive brains, a lush environment represents natural resources and safety. In the wild, coming across an area of lush green plants would have meant sources of food, water, and shelter. Thousands of years later, this still triggers a relaxation reflex in our brain to the extent that having plants around the office or even just painting a wall green can increase creative thinking.
Finally, going for walks gives us a change of scenery, gives us exercise and gets fresh air in our lungs; all things that result in a new perspective and a chance to break out of lazy or habitual thinking patterns.
How to Overcome Writers’ Block
Inspiration and creativity are key parts of nearly every type of work, and it’s crucial that it stays this way, too. If there is no element of creativity in your job, then, eventually, you will probably be put out of work by a machine or a computer program.
While this is true of most jobs, writing is certainly a job where creativity and inspiration are particularly front and center; even moreso if you write fiction. This is why the dreaded ‘writers’ block’ is such a problem for writers. When they’re staring at a blank page and they have a deadline for their first draft, how can they overcome that in order to create their masterpiece?
Even if you’re not a writer, your job will likely involve elements of writing, whether that’s writing a blurb for your website or writing a letter to a client. For that reason, it can pay for everyone to learn the best ways to overcome it.
Tricks to Overcome Writers’ Block
One method to overcome writers’ block is to simply start writing. That can mean writing anything. Ideally, you should start writing the letter, book, or article you need to complete, regardless of how good you think your text is. In other words, it’s better to have something down on the page rather than nothing and you can always fix it later.
And if you really can’t think of anything to write, even something bad, then you can write something different instead. Try writing a journal entry, an unimportant e-mail, or even a short story just for fun. If you do this, then you’ll find it warms up your brain and words start to flow more easily again.
But don’t always blame your lack of inspiration on writers’ block. Writers’ block is a real phenomenon, indeed, but it also makes a very good scapegoat when you just don’t know what to write or aren’t in the mood. If you’re writing fiction for instance, then sometimes the reason you can’t get in the zone is that you find that section boring. Instead of forcing yourself to write it, ask how you could liven things up a bit. After all, if you’re too bored to write it, how do you think your readers will feel?
Likewise, it might just be that you’re tired, that your environment is distracting you, or that you’re not comfortable. Try to attack the problem from all fronts, rather than just one, for the best chance of success!