visiting genius: where ideas come from

Elizabeth Gilbert gave this moving TED talk a few years ago about creativity and ideas and where they come from.  She posits that, in order to protect the person from what comes after a great burst of creativity, we might better view creativity in ways similar to the views of those who came before the Renaissance.  They viewed people as having a genius, having an ‘assigned’ out of body creative force that supplied the person with their creative ideas.  Kind of like a creativity fairy.  In this way not only is the creative person protected from the narcissism of their own ideas, they are also protected from the feelings of failure that come after the great idea has been implemented and is now past.

dandelion fairy: the holder of great ideas

dandelion fairy: the holder of great ideas

This is an awesome sci-fi take on creativity and, speaking as someone (just like any one of us) who comes up with creative ideas on occasion, a very comforting view.  Often my really successful ideas do seem to come from somewhere else.  Sometimes they are the result of a really good night’s sleep and appear on waking, or they appear in the shower. Often Google has something to do with it.  And more often than not they are a product of a great deal of really hard work followed by a visit with a friend, or a few moments of daydreaming and a conversation with a colleague, or that after work time that I spend with family talking about the events of the day.

Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO, says that great ideas come during a time of ‘relaxed attention’, what my son’s Spanish teacher calls daydreaming.  My son is a deep thinker who spends copious amounts of time watching ‘how to’ videos on youtube.  So when he is ‘daydreaming’ during Spanish class (and by the way he is learning Spanish at a rapid pace, so his inattention does not seem to be hurting his acquisition of the language), that is his brain putting together the millions of bits of information that he has poured into it.  I fully expect that one day he will solve problems that I cannot even fathom.

Steven Johnson believes that creativity and great ideas are more than an epiphany, but rather the product of a long process that ends in something that may play well as an epiphany.  And with this I deeply agree.  Not only must the ideas ferment, but they also must be joined by other ideas to finally solidify into what seems like a single great idea out of the blue, a stroke of genius.  Mr. Johnson calls it ‘the slow hunch’.

And if you want to quote me (oh please), my philosophy is that you have to work hard at coming up with lots of bad ideas until finally that one, elusive great idea floats to the surface.  It’s my very inelegant way of synthesizing the great minds who give TED talks and run great companies.