“You need an idea.”
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Even though I look desperate, I don’t feel desperate, because I have a habitual routine to keep me going.
I call it scratching. You know how you scratch away at a lottery ticket to see if you’ve won. That’s what I’m doing when I begin a piece. I’m digging through everything to find something. It’s like clawing at the side of a mountain to get a toehold, a grip, some sort of traction to keep moving upward and onward.
The unshakeable rule: you don’t have a really good idea until you combine two little ideas.
(Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit)
As I have often said, I believe this: “the more you know, the more you know.” The more you read, the more you hear, the more you experience, the deeper the reservoir of “stuff” that you have to draw from in any and every situation.
In the new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson, the author makes the case that good ideas come from such a reservoir within. I have already chosen this book as my selection for the December First Friday Book Synopsis, and now I have read this article on the Daily Beast about the author and his book: The Origin of Good Ideas by Joshua Robinson. Here are some excerpts:
Sparks of brilliance, Johnson argues, are actually more like slow burns that develop in places, such as universities, that are teeming with ideas. Even wrong ideas help. An expectant genius waiting for the muse to deliver a fully formed, humanity-advancing idea into his lap can be kept waiting for a long time. Things like evolutionary theory, the internet, and the printing press did not appear miraculously in a dream. Or on a piece of burnt toast.
“I didn’t want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing,” he says. “I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, I could use that.’ When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses.”
On the final page of the book, he summarizes how the abstract patterns can be applied practically in everyday life to foster more creative, open environments. “Go for a walk,” he writes, “cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”
All innovation comes from good ideas. So learning how to find good ideas is a pretty good challenge to tackle. And since innovation is one of the great needs in business, and society, I suspect this will be a fun and valuable book.
You can watch Steven Johnson’s Ted Talk, Where Good Ideas Come From, here.
Update: I’ve now watched the video, and can”t wait to read the book. He talks about the value of a “slow hunch,” he begins and ends with a great coffee house story, and his last line is: “Chance favors the connected mind.” The video is worth watching!