People sometimes ask me: “Where do you get all these ideas for your blog posts and books?”

Do I climb the looming summits of some private Kilimanjaro of the mind, digging for gold with a pickaxe?

Or do I descend into some underground lair of wild ideas, slaying the best and dragging them to the light?

It is far less adventurous than that, I’m afraid.

The honest answer is: I absolutely don’t have a clue where they come from.

Far from having a systematic process of generating them, I’m more or less at their mercy. There are many methods of “being creative” and while I don’t think that they’re bad, real creativity can’t be coerced, at least in my experience.

But there are certain things that at least seem to provide a heightened probability field for their gestation:

1. Milking The Mundane

The only summit worth climbing for ideas, as far as I can see, is a mountain of unwashed dishes. Now, that doesn’t sound all too exciting? And yes, it isn’t. But it seems to work better than any smart mind-mapping method or $19.99 “creative thinking” manual.

I’ve read somewhere that the sensation of running water may be beneficial for stimulating certain neuronal currents, hence the many reports of “shower thinkers” who get their Eureka moments in the bathroom.

Apparently, the phenomenon is so widespread that someone managed to turn it into cash by selling waterproof notepads for the shower.

2. Networking Vs. Facebooking

In his book “Where ideas come from” Steve Johnson takes us on a tour of the “history of innovation”, hunting down behavioral patterns and environmental settings that create new ideas.

What he found is that the classic Eureka moment of the lone thinker sitting at his table contemplating something until suddenly the big picture comes together might be a concept that needs to be updated.

Behind the stories Johnson tells about historical innovations we see a larger pattern: Instead of the individual that comes up with new ideas alone, we see social networks in which innovation is emerging.

For more about this concept, I highly recommend his presentation on TED or Youtube:

 “Social Network, you say? Great, I’m on Facebook all day long but I never get any ideas, at all.”

It seems we have to make a distinction here between social networks in an outer and an inner psychological sense.

As far as I understand it, each idea is generated by another one, a bit like cell proliferation in biology. Therefore, there needs to be some kind of starting point, an input with a certain quality.

These inputs can be generated by reading good books or talking to people. They form a network. My high school philosophy teacher used to tell us that he enjoyed regular conversations with Plato and Aristotle and while we laughed about his “voices in the head” what he really meant was that he had created an inner social network.

Also, it doesn’t seem to be enough to just add 5,000 friends or “follow” smart people. There needs to be some kind of mirror-image of these networks on the inside of a person.

3. Not Looking, Not Knowing, Being Surprised

Now, after having speculated about the effects of water on the brain and esoteric concepts of an “inner pantheon of ideas” I have to return to what I said above: I don’t have a clue where good ideas come from!

It seems that the best ideas come unexpectedly and seemingly out of nowhere.

There certainly is some sensation of just going with the flow or even being in an almost dreamlike state, where the everyday consciousness is somewhat faded out or in the background and doesn’t block new idea downloads.

And again, while methods like Oblique Strategies can sometimes work, it seems that it can’t be learned to have ideas. Many people will disagree with me, especially those who make a living selling books and seminars about “how to be creative” but I think in the end we have to admit that we don’t have a clue about certain things and over-analyzing them won’t yield their inner workings.

I’ve found the following quote from an interview with science fiction author William Gibson also very telling:

“[T]he part of me that sits here having this conversation with you is incapable of doing any very original literary work. The part of me that creates stuff is right now largely offline and unavailable, and I couldn’t summon it if my life depended on it. I have to make myself available and hope it turns up. To me, that’s where the good stuff comes from. It’s like, William Gibson doesn’t get ideas for novels while I’m walking around in the world” – source

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