We are like Dorothy, and we crave the kind of a whirlwind of ideas that will transport us, transfigurate us, and land us in Oz, a place where there is room for mystery, a place where there’s room for juxtaposition and surrealism, a re-enchanted world, where everything is possible. – Shots of Awe creator Jason Silva
That head-shaking moment of wonder when you are pleasantly surprised by an idea and ask yourself why you haven’t come up with it sooner.
If you think about the process of producing brand new ideas into your mind, you might recognize the various stages: you hear or read something, it fits a subject you have been busy with, you connect the new information with the ones you already had, ponder upon it awhile, take pieces out, put other pieces in, take a shower, and there it is: you feel the spark of mental energy that flashes into your mind. You just know it’s a good idea to invest your energy and time in. You know for sure when people’s reaction is that positive that you have got some clients before the idea has become reality.
In his abiding insightful book “A Technique for Producing Ideas” (published in 1939), James Webb Young builds upon the work of the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (known for his 80/20- rule) Pareto principle and his The Mind and Society, Young declared two key principles for creating ideas:
- 1. An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.
- 2. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds, each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others, it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts. (Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas)
According to Young is the art of producing ideas, to form the habit of mind which leads to the search for relationships between facts. The emphasis in this idea-producing process lays in pursuing meaningful experiences as an end goal, instead of boning them up for an immediate purpose.
The Art of Producing Ideas according to James Webb Young
Step 1: Gathering raw material
The first step in Young’ outline of the creative process to produce ideas, is building a rich pool of “raw material”- mental resources from which to build new combinations. The principle of constantly expanding your experience, both personally and vicariously, does matter tremendously in any idea-producing job.
“Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool-gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.”
Step 2: Digesting the material
Digesting the material and seeking the relationship is the second step in the process:
“What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.”
Step 3: Unconscious processing
In his third stage of the idea-producing process, Young stresses the importance of putting the whole subject out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.
“It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind by dropping the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story, or let it work while you sleep.”
Step 4: The A-HA! moment
Young assures everything will click in the fourth stage of the a-ha! moment:
“Out of nowhere, the Idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or showering, or it may waken you in the middle of the night.”
Step 5: Idea meets reality
Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,” when your new idea has to face reality:
“It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.
When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”
In case it turns out it is not such a good idea, remind yourself with this: people who have lots of ideas fail far more often than they succeed, but they fail less than those who have no ideas at all.
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