How The Most Creative People In Business Generate New Ideas

Everybody gets stuck. Here’s how some of the most innovative thinkers in business get themselves out of mental ruts and generate new ideas.

How The Most Creative People In Business Generate New Ideas
[Photo: Flickr user Al Ibrahim]

The 100 people on 2015’s Most Creative People in Business list have achieved impressive breakthroughs across a wide swath of industries: finding a possible cure for Ebola, using drone technology to help save endangered animals, modeling jet engines with 3-D printers.


None of these breakthroughs came from resting easy on outdated ideas or settling into familiar ruts. And yet, even this illustrious group admits to getting stuck and actively seeking grist for the mill. So we put the following question to the group: Where or from whom do you seek out inspiration? What do you do when you’re in a rut? And most importantly, how do you keep new ideas flowing? Here’s what some of them had to say–if you try them out yourself, one each day of the work week, you’ll have almost a month of options to help spark some creative new ideas of your own.

Jens Bergensten, lead creative designer, Minecraft, #5:

“Before I started working on Minecraft, we would figure out new games by going on small holidays. We used to go to Berlin. They have these really great around-the-clock Internet cafes, and we’d just work on something. We’d also attend Game Jams, where you’re given just random things and have limited time to produce a game. It’s quite often that you are forced to think of something that works within the theme and, like I said before, I don’t know where I’m going and try to make it fun during this 32- or 48-hour Game Jam. You either produced crap or finished something interesting, and the interesting thing would end up in a pile. Then when we would actually need to start a launch project, we would look back in the pile.”

Dana Mauriello, Etsy, #7:

“I am obsessive with finding, cataloging, and doing new activities. A dance-floor meditation? A talk on game design? A tattoo convention? Done, done, and done. I am on an endless quest to learn about and personally experience as many diverse subcultures as possible and never leave home without my adventure backpack and a notebook so that I can collect inspiration and log new ideas.”


Greg Hoffman, Nike, #12:

“I pull a lot of inspiration from traveling around the world. One in particular is Brazil, where I’ve been going since 1997. Whether you’re talking architecture or furniture or digital, the design is modern but with a soul. Which mirrors Nike. I’ve been to Brasilia, the modernist mecca that [Oscar] Niemeyer designed. Talk about being representative of an incredible, bold, disruptive vision. It’s an entire city designed in exacting and uncompromising detail. It forces you to look at your own work and ask: Are we really pushing things as far as we can?”

Clickhole’s article “This Make-A-Wish Kid Couldn’t Decide What He Wanted So They Slid Him Along A Deli Counter Like A Sandwich

Jermaine Affonso, Clickhole, #13:

“Okay, so out of everyone in the world–authors, humanitarians, entrepreneurs, innovators, Elon Musk, scientists curing AIDS right this second–I’m going to say Kanye West. I know, I hate me too.”

Martha Murray, Boston Children’s Hospital, #15:

“If one project is getting stalled for some reason, I switch gears to another project or two for a while until the problem with the first one works itself out. Sometimes if I am stuck, and leave a problem to sit for a bit, the answer shows up at a traffic light or when I am reading something totally unrelated. It’s like when you are trying to remember someone’s name and once you stop trying, it pops into your brain. It’s the best part of having a bunch of things going on at the same time.”


Alex Lifschitz, Crash Override, #18:

“Creativity isn’t just an abstract font for me personally–I tend to just look at those who have successfully overcome issues similar to the one we’re dealing with, and try to imitate not their solutions, but their attitude and approach to it, and take it to heart.”

Barbara Bush, Global Health Corps, #29:

“The need comes first, then the ideas. I’m also an endorphin freak, and working out, running, and playing certainly creates the proper mind setting for creativity.”

Ava DuVernay, director, #32:

“[Creative inspiration] is all around. Nothing’s ever boring. I’m never bored. Even if I’m sitting with my oldest cousin out in the country in Alabama and no one else is around. No way that’s boring. I’m going to sit there, I’m gonna watch what she does, I’m gonna listen to every story. Everything seeps in. Like I’m standing in line at the pharmacy, I’m not bored. I’m looking at that lady wiping her snotty kid’s nose–like, is she really gonna use her hand? Wow, that’s love. What’s her story?”

Larry WilmorePhoto: Andy Ryan, Styling: Nina Schelich; grooming: Sonia Rodriguez]

Larry Wilmore, The Nightly Show, #44:

“I’m always inspired by the small stories I see about people who are doing the right thing with no attention given to it. I used to watch Charles Kuralt on CBS’s Sunday Morning show, and they used to have all those stories. Also, when I see people around the world in the most dire situations doing stuff. Malala [Yousafzai], what she went through . . . man, if you’re not inspired by that, there’s just something dead inside of you. What they have to face in that part of the world, it’s just ridiculous. And then on a personal level, my kids inspire me all the time.”

Emily Segal, K-HOLE, #51:

“I read everything I can get my hands on, flip through the racks at Zara and Forever 21 (it’s like a meditation), browse IRL in as many bookstores as possible, and go to the club. Listening to good music makes you smarter! I also love to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If I’m stuck on a writing or strategy project, I write freehand on a legal pad in a weird place without Internet–no environment that’s too lovely or I get distracted. Other methods: Go outside and walk, listen to something, smoke cigarettes, tell jokes.”

Imrad Amed, Business of Fashion, #54:

“Most of my ideas come from drawing patterns across conversations I have with different types of people–technology investors, young fashion design students, a CEO. This variety is stimulating, and offers many different perspectives on the things I am thinking about.”

Janet Mock

Janet Mock, host, activist, #57:

“I usually take my cockapoo out on a walk, I do some kind of physical activity, whether that’s Bikram Yoga or SoulCycle. Usually it’s some kind of creative activity. Or it’s completely turning my mind off and watching something that doesn’t really challenge. Like Real Housewives of Atlanta. Literally watching people argue about one little thing of shade that they threw.”

Emily Weiss, Glossier, #66:

“Four years after starting Into the Gloss, I continue to be fascinated by these conversations and inspired by girls around the world. Relatedly, spending time alone. I’m naturally pretty outgoing, but when you’re always ‘on,’ it’s important to be ‘off’ to give the brain time to wander. Also, I love reading business books. The best one I’ve read is Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. It’s a real kick in the pants.”

April Underwood, #Angels, #69:

“Yoga is a huge help. I started doing it at the Twitter office (one of Twitter’s many perks) when I started building a new product in 2012, and I stuck with it. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, I typically realize I haven’t been prioritizing yoga, and when I fix that, things fall back into place.”


Mike Judge, #75:

“From when I first started making animated shorts, I would say, ‘By any means necessary.’ I’d search my brain for any scrap of memory for any funny story, any interesting thing. And then I was getting writer’s block, getting frustrated just sitting around the house and no ideas were coming. So I thought, Well, I’m not getting any ideas, so I’m just going to wash the dishes, go mow the lawn. And then ideas started coming to me. So washing the dishes was the first breakthrough.”

Emily Leproust, Twist Bioscience, #87:

“My Saturday morning walks on the beach often offer solutions that evaded me during the week.”

Marije Vogelzang, food designer, #96:

“My real magic trick is taking a shower. I get the best ideas in the shower, and I’ve got special notepads that can get wet to write down my ideas. Sometimes when I’m stuck, I go and take a shower. It hardly ever fails!”


Scott Dungate, Wieden+Kennedy London, #97:

“If I’m in a rut, I find it’s best to try not to think about it. Your brain is too tied up in it. I go for a run, see a movie, go to an art gallery, or just sleep on it. Push the pram around the park. Get drunk if necessary. Then I come back and try to look at the problem more simply, less tangled. Easier said than done. Sometimes it works.”


About the author

Erin Schulte is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper's Bazaar, and Entrepreneur, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter @erin719nyc.


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