All grand inventions, theories, and creatives ideas are composed of small ideas. Smart folks like naturalist Stephen Jay Gould call this combinatorial creativity, which proposes that all you need to be creative is to find connections between things that previously laid hidden: chocolate and peanut butter were amazing on their own, but taken together: woah.
“(What’s) an automobile?” asks Making Ideas Happen author Scott Berkun. “An engine + wheels. A telephone? Electricity and sound. Reese’s peanut butter cups? Peanut butter and chocolate.”
The task of being an “idea person,” then, is to collect buckets of ideas and draw novel connections between them. Here’s how to use a few of these tactics for greater creativity.
Why do people feel more creative when they’re drunk, when it’s late at night, or taking drugs? Because, Berkun says, they’re inhibitions are lowered–and they allow themselves to see combinations they’d otherwise ignore.
There’s an old Chinese proverb that the faintest of ink is more trustworthy than the strongest memory, so if our task is to accumulate a treasury of ideas from which to mine connections from later on, we want to make it super easy to recall them. That’s why an idea journal is so effective: when ever any idea comes into your head, right it down.
Brilliant people have been doing this sort of thing for a while now: when philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would go tramping around Alpine lakes he would always have a notebook on him to assemble notes on whatever argument was forming behind his perpetually furrowed brow. Then he’d get back to his desk, fully armed with thought ammunition.
Just because you’re not aware what’s going on in your subconscious mind doesn’t mean its not working: the great psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that incubation is critical to creativity. That is, during any creative process, there will be a period where the idea is not yet emerged and fully articulate, like a chick taking form within an egg.
But we don’t see ideas hatch from incubation if we’re constantly busy. So it’s crucial to create some slack in our schedule to allow ideas to reveal themselves–like by going for a run, taking a shower, or like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner does, placing empty blocks within your schedule.
People become more productive, engaged, and satisfied when they have an at-work BFF. But they’re even better off if they’re working with their foil–an introvert with an extrovert, a rationalist with a creative, someone biased toward assessment with someone biased toward action.
“We’re self-medicating with the other person’s personality,” Northwestern professor Leigh Thompson told us. “When you have a deep work-style diversity, that’s going to help groups be much more productive. I need to find someone who drives me nuts, but that person is going to be a good check on my behavior.”
If you had the same skills, temperament, personality, (and accompanying biases), then you’d be occupying much of the same ground, so the thinking goes, while working with your foil lets you cover a much greater surface area from which to draw connections.
The more sleep you get, the better you consolidate your memories. The more memories you have, the greater your store of possible connections.
PayPal cofounder and serial entrepreneur Max Levchin has a crate of 200-some legal pads sitting in his garage. Why? A super connected guy, he goes around asking random smart people about their lives: what their craft is like, what problems they’re running into, and the like. Then he takes thorough notes on their dilemmas. Soon after he reviews all that research, which allows him to burst out with new business ideas, like his mobile payment startup Affirm–which, curiously enough, came to him after “after a second glass of Pinot.” Further proof to relax your inhibitions.
Hat tip: Scott Berkun