Most of us wish that we could have more genius ideas. Ideas that would help us to make money, ideas that would allow us to add creative flare to our events and our romantic gestures, and ideas that would help us to make our lives better.
And yet for some people these brilliant ideas just don’t come naturally. Most businesses and work places will have one or two people that they consider ‘the ideas guys’ and these are the people who seem to generate all the truly great ideas that drive the business and solve problems.
Those people then also are the ones who receive the slightly higher salaries as you might expect, and they can leave the rest of us feeling a little boring and dull.
Are these people just naturally gifted with a talent that you can’t possibly develop? Or is becoming an ‘ideas person’ something that anyone can do with the right strategy? Can you ‘learn’ to have ideas?
Often having ideas is simply a case of looking at a problem in a new way – of using ‘lateral thinking’. This simply means that you approach it from another angle, which in turn leads to a breakthrough and a solution that might otherwise not have been forthcoming.
This is something that we all have the capacity to do – it simply requires you to ask the right questions and to pick up some good habits.
The first habit is to think a lot. Whenever you see or hear about something that interests you, ask yourself how the creator probably thought of it, what the implications are for you and other people, how it can be applied to your life/your situation, how the idea might progress if it were taken further etc. If you can develop these habits, then you will find that you are more likely to stumble across thoughts that prove to be useful or productive.
If you’re trying to come up with a new creative idea, then a great way to do so is by collecting lots of information that might relate to the topic. Perhaps this might mean creating a mood board (collage), or just reading a lot. Most new ideas are simply the result of combining two different ideas or concepts, and the more ideas you have floating around in your head, the more possible combinations you will create. The more input you have, the more output you are likely to have.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to dream big. Think about what you’d ideally like to achieve and throw out the stupidest ideas you can think of. You might just find that something ridiculous helps lead to something useful – that you can find a reasonable compromise that fulfils your goals. One strategy I use when coming up with ideas for apps is something I call the ‘step back’ technique: that means simply thinking about the goal I’d like to achieve in an imaginary fantasy world, then asking what the closest thing I can realistically accomplish might be. I can’t do X, but perhaps I could do Y? They say that no idea is a bad idea, so start out with something that’s not feasible and then continually develop it until it becomes something useful.
Likewise, when presented with a problem, you can try asking a few useful questions that will help you to remove yourself from the situation and look at it differently. Examples include:
• How would [BLANK] approach this problem? – By thinking how another person, or someone from another background or profession would approach a problem, you can take yourself out of your own shoes for a while.
• How would you solve this problem if [BLANK]? – Here you can try out a few more imaginary scenarios. How would you solve the problem with infinite cash? With free marketing? With a team of 100 people? How can you take those ideas and make them more applicable to the situation you’re in currently?
• Could [BLANK] be useful in solving this problem? – Run through the resources and materials you have available to you and see how any of them could potentially be useful. Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous. Could Facebook solve your problems? Could a day off? Could speaking to people?
• What would I do if I had a gun to my head? – They say that desperation is the mother of invention, and often this is true. When put under pressure our brain has a tendency to go into overdrive to try and find a solution for us. It’s a bit reckless though to put yourself in unnecessary peril just to try and get the ideas to flow, so instead just imagine yourself in a dire situation. It’s all going wrong, you need to solve this problem now with the resources you have… where do you start?
It’s something of a myth that all the best ideas occur in isolation. We tend to believe that people have ‘eureka’ moments when they’re sitting in the bath, or under an apple tree – when actually studies have shown that the majority of good ideas are generated by teams, partly as a result of those teams spitballing and sharing ideas.
That doesn’t mean that ideas won’t come from you, but sometimes just talking about your thoughts can help you to conceptualise them better and to develop them. If you don’t want to talk to anyone for fear of having your ideas stolen, then just try writing about your problem. You’ll find that writing feels to your brain a lot like talking, and it will force you to re-examine your situation and to think about it in a way that’s slightly removed.
Take a Shower
Have you ever noticed that when you do have good ideas, they tend to come while you’re in the shower or on the toilet? What’s that about? Well apparently it’s likely due to the fact that you have ‘de-focussed’ your attention as you absent-mindedly go through boring motions. Because you aren’t solidly thinking about one particular task, this gives your brain the chance to glance over the ideas floating around that skull of yours which allows for it to notice those novel connections. Sometimes the best ideas will come then when you aren’t trying to force them.
Tips for Your Brain
Using these strategies you can encourage your brain to ‘come up with the goods’, but you’re still relying on your brain being powerful and creative enough to do something useful with what you’re giving it. Another important focus then when trying to generate ideas is to make sure your brain is working optimally – that you’re able to store and retain information and to see all the connections between that data.
Sleep can help a lot here which is why many of us say we’ll ‘sleep on it’. When you sleep, your brain consolidates memories you formed in the day which can help you to make new connections and to cement that information that may later come in handy. In fact, even your dreams can sometimes be useful and many famous inventors, artists and writers have based their works on visions they’ve seen in their dreams.
Make sure that you get plenty of energy to your brain whether that’s through the right diet, or through lots of sleep and try to avoid stress. Stimulate your brain too in other ways, with music, with computer games and with exercise which has been shown to be very good for your brain.
Finally, make sure that you learn to recognise the good ideas. Write down the ideas you have and look over them another day so that nothing golden slips through your mental sieve. Sometimes the best ideas don’t seem like anything much – they might not even be original. Sometimes the best ideas are just a matter of applying a tried and tested formula to a particular situation.