A couple of years ago, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. It was one of those books that I saw recommended to creatives all the time but for whatever reason ignored. I finally caved and bought it when I was in Austin on a business trip, awaiting my flight home at the airport. I quickly understood why it’s so widely praised. It gave me a fresh understanding of my own creative process and helped me examine my motivations for making things.

One passage in particular stood out to me, on the nature of ideas. Gilbert writes:

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us — albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Gilbert’s theory on ideas is that they are something external to us. Think like the muses of Greek mythology. The muses were the inspirational goddesses of the arts, bringing men great ideas in their pursuits of literature, poetry, history, and the sciences. 

This theory has stuck around for centuries: that our ideas control us, and not vice versa. It’s a somewhat esoteric concept to treat ideas as separate from our bodies, floating around the universe looking for a home.

It’s a nice thought, if a bit twee — as if our thoughts come to us at random moments, out of the ether, and say “Pick me!” before they float away like helium balloons.

Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery, December 2020
Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery, December 2020

I don’t think that our ideas are external. Our brains are always absorbing new information and inspiration, even if we don’t recognize it as such at the time. It’s only natural for us to have ideas and want to make things because, I truly believe, that the act of creation is our natural state. It’s why so many people take up hobbies, or do things like make sourdough bread when stuck at home during a pandemic.

What’s more, I’m not really convinced that it’s even fruitful to ask where our ideas are coming from. Instead, I think the right question to ask is: “What do we need to do to make our ideas into reality?”

I’ve noticed that when I have an idea I really like and really want to follow through on, it needs three things to flourish:

  1. Time: Have I given myself the opportunity to let my imagination wander?
  2. Space: Does my physical and/or mental environment support my creativity?
  3. Attention: Can I develop a plan and give myself more time and space to help me follow through on my idea?

To me, these are the three key ingredients of what your ideas need. Let’s walk through each one:

1. Time

First, there’s setting aside the time. It’s as simple yet difficult as it sounds.

In an article for Scientific American, Abraham Loeb writes that a mind can only be “fertile” with ideas when it has “the freedom to venture without the confines of traditional thinking or the burden of practical concerns.” For instance, Loeb, the chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University, explains that many of his ideas come to him in the shower. But it’s not the shower, or his overall living space, that may be particularly inspiring. It’s the time in his day to pull away from everyday tasks and stresses.

We’ve probably all had a great idea (or at least a clever one) at an inopportune time, like while showering. But we need more than just a few minutes of free time. I used to daydream a lot as a kid, much to the chagrin of my teachers. As an adult, however, that ability to let my mind wander has been one of my greatest assets. It’s when I can think without restrictions that I innovate in my business, move past plot holes in my fiction writing, or brainstorm a new project to beautify my home. 

Think of when you’re most creative. Perhaps you’re a morning person, up before the sun and ready to create something in the stillness of the morning. Or maybe you’re like me — a night owl — and love the quiet of the evening, after everyone has gone to bed. Decide on which time will serve you best; it’s okay if it changes day by day. Then schedule it in your day planner, sign out of social media for an hour or two, and tell your family members or roommates to bother you at their own risk.

2. Space

A view of the author's office space with books arranged by color, a cleared desk, and various decorations on the wall

Next, there’s space. This isn’t merely designating a physical location, like the shower or a home office (pictured above). Instead, this space is an environment that will help support the conception and cultivation of ideas. For some, that’s a job where innovation is encouraged. (Some of Google’s products — like Gmail, Adsense, and Google News — were created during the time given to employees to pursue personal projects.)

Loeb gives this example of innovation in a workplace at Bell Labs in the mid-20th century, where they “assembled creative physicists and engineers into a single corridor where their daily conversations led to radio astronomy and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background as well as inventions that include the transistor, photovoltaic cell, laser and CCD, along with many other breakthroughs.” There, ideas resulted from the desire to solve problems, in an environment with others who were thinking big and would support new solutions.

The space we give ourselves need not be something that involves other people. We also need to have a mindset that is receptive to new ideas and willing to accept their plausibility. If you’re constantly thinking that your ideas aren’t good enough or that you can’t finish anything, then you’ve set yourself for a self-fulfilling prophecy. (And, naturally, we need to surround ourselves with people who will encourage rather than discourage our unconventional thinking!)

Creativity is not for the select few. Anyone can have ideas and turn them into something tangible. The key, as cheesy as it sounds, is believing in our ability to make something out of nothing. As one Lifehacker article puts it: “What separates the creative from the not-so-creative isn’t so much the ability to come up with ideas but the ability to trust them, or to trust ourselves to realize them.”

So this step is two-fold. Yes, you need a physical space that will be conducive to coming up with ideas and following through on them. If you want to paint a picture, for example, and the only space you have is a messy dining room table, then you’ll need to clear space. And you need a good headspace so that you’re in the right mood to create. That’s not to say that you have to wait until you’re having a perfect day to do anything. Trust me: it won’t arrive. But let’s also throw out the myth of the tortured artist while we’re at it.

3. Attention

To use a metaphor, if adequate time and space are the soil and seeds of an idea, then attention is the water and sun we give to them. And that attention all rests on continuing to set aside the time and space for ourselves to bring our ideas to fruition.

A butterfly lands on a flower in the garden at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY

Giving our ideas the attention they deserve is the hardest part. By comparison, it’s almost easy to have random thoughts pop into our heads when showering, driving, or daydreaming at work or school when we should be paying attention. 

This is where good planning comes in. If you really want to have some great ideas and follow through on them, you don’t need to wait for the muse to show up. Commit to setting aside time each day, or at any point during your week, and do something that gets your mind into that creative state. Freewrite, practice automatic drawing, listen to music, make lists, take a walk in the woods, visit an art museum — do anything that gets you out of your everyday routine and into a more receptive state. Pay attention not just to your thought process for coming up with ideas, but the world around you that can inspire them. Don’t forget to track your progress — word count, completed tasks, or any other result — to help motivate you to come back again and again.

Naturally, life gets in the way sometimes. This step is the toughest, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Think of it like meditation. I always thought that meditating meant clearing your mind completely, no thoughts allowed. But the trick to meditating is to let the thoughts come up if they do, without judgment, and then let them go. Deep breath.

So you lost your attention? It happens. Don’t judge yourself — just keep going, whenever you can pick things up again.

Okay, what about how to generate ideas?

Next week, I’ll share a couple of brainstorming exercises that have helped me overcome creative blocks in the past. Want someone to help you through the process? I’m here to help.

Where or when do you come up with your best ideas? Leave a comment below.

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