Where do ideas come from?

Where does genius reside? Is it learned, or innate? Or does it come from some external force?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” explores in a TED conference the idea that genius is outside the individual. Therefore, rather than seek inspiration internally, the artist should try calling his or her muse. This ancient idea was lost sometime in the Renaissance as man became the centre if his own world and the idea of rulers appointed by God (Divine Right) faded out if fashion. Gilbert also raises an important point; that this perception takes the pressure off the artist. The artist is not responsible for the outcome – the muse is! All the artist need do is make the necessary preparations for that muse to come. Gilbert proposes that if this theory took hold on a large scale it might tackle the problem of depression and alcoholism/drug dependency within the artistic community.

Koestler said in ‘The Act of Creation’ (1964) that the neurotic “does not get beyond the destructive preliminary work and is therefore unable to detach the whole creative process from his own person and transfer it to an ideological abstraction.”.

So is creativity an internal or external factor?In Deepak Chopra‘s audiobroadcast “The Cosmic Mind and the Submanifest Order of Being” he explores the theory that ideas and memories may not be found in the brain, and that they may be in the nonlocal universal field of consciousness before becoming electrical impulses in the brain. He compares these electrical signals to radio transmissions, and uses this theory to explain coincidences. Chopra uses the anecdote of thinking of a mushroom omelette and being unable to get the idea out of his mind. Two hours later, he finds himself on a plane, being served a mushroom omelette. Chopra explains that this coincidence was because the concept of a mushroom omelette was in the nonlocal unified consciousness before it manifested in his reality.

Certainly many of us have had the uncanny experience of thinking of a friend, and finding simultaneously that they are calling on the phone. But is there any evidence to suggest that ideas originate outside of our minds?

Evidence by William Maddux and Adam Galinsky in their study of how living abroad affects creativity suggests that external factors have a large part to play. Maddux and Galinsky found in their creativity tests that expats were more likely to find innovative solutions to problems, such as negotiating a deal. Their study also included controls for personality factors like openness. The results showed that people who had not lived abroad tended to be less creative than expats, even if they were equally high on the openness trait. It was not the openness that made them creative; it was the act of exposing themselves to new ideas and new ways of living and working.

This concurs with Gilbert’s theories that creativity is not just about who you are; it is equally about the environments and spaces you create for yourself.

So don’t beat yourself up when ideas aren’t forthcoming. Try changing your environment and see if this inspires your creativity. Try preparing for the genius to come and then channel it’s voice. And if all else fails, it’s not you who is inadequate! It’s your Muse.

The best improv and writing tool ever

Are you stuck for ideas for your scenes and stories? Want a tool to help you start now, with no thinking required? Want to instantly find a character, activity, situation and sense of urgency?

This might be the tool for you!

In my opinion it is the best improv and writing tool ever.

I found it by accident while improv-swotting for the Wurzburg Improv Festival. I haven’t improvised for a while, so was searching for a way to practice by myself, before I meet other improvisers and ruin their lives.

After reading a wonderful article on improv by Dan Goldstein, I was inspired by the idea of starting scenes with an ATTITUDE, and an ACTIVITY on a SPECIAL DAY.

Then I remembered the fantastic Brainstormer App! Simply input three lists and they will display on three spinning wheels. Spin each wheel and receive a unique random scene-starter!


Here are some of the lists I used:

Mischievous, depressed, angry, jealous, moaning, virtuous, vain, suspicious, confused, elated, drunk, grieving…

Dancing, hiding, tickling, writing, drinking, polishing, practising, copying, stretching, jogging…

Olympic final, anniversary of Hitler’s death, our wedding day, the day I admit I love your brother, your birthday, grandma’s 100th birthday, driving test, the day I get knighted…

So a random combination could be:

…which prompted this scene: the Saudi Arabian team have entered us at short notice into the Diving Finals. We have never dived before! So I put on a video of Tom Daley and we watch and figure out how to dive like a champion!

I tried combination after combination and really enjoyed creating an entrance and first line for the scene it prompted. It also occurred to me how awesome a tool this was for writer’s block or for story generation.

You can make your own categories and lists using the Brainstormer App. If you don’t have a smartphone or iPad, make cards, or simply print your lists, close your eyes and point!

Well happy storytelling, folks!

Let’s see if this simple tool makes us better writers and improvisers : )

How to run a meeting about ideas

Are you looking for ways to gather ideas in meetings successfully?  Have you ever held a meeting to generate ideas that didn’t get you anywhere?

Often, we leap into harvesting ideas without planning how.  The truth is that most people are desk-based, and are mostly functioning from their analytical left brains, rather than their inspired, artistic right brains.

So when you call everyone in an ask for their ideas, don’t be surprised if actually get analysis.  It looks something like this:

LYNDI:  Okay everyone, we need ideas to make our new reception area more welcoming.

PHIL:  I’ve got a great idea!  Let’s paint the reception red!

LORRAINE:  Red’s horrible.  It’s too aggressive.

YANU:  Yeah.

KAY:  Let’s paint the reception yellow!

YANU:  Yellow stains too easy.

And so on.  Do you see the pattern?  Ideas are put forwards, and then analysed and rejected.  The sum total is that you get no forward movement.

Edward de Bono writes a lot about this, and he suggests using games and exercises to focus group thinking.  During a phase of idea generation, everyone should be asked to be only creative and no one should be allowed to analyse. Negativity is banned in this phase as it inhibits the right brain free-flow of ideas. Then you run a separate session to analyse ideas.  This utilises both left and right brain much more effectively.

Plus, Minus and Interesting, or PMI for instance, asks users to spend time considering the positives, then the negatives, then the interesting factors about each suggestion.

So now your meeting looks like this:

LYNDI:  I want you to consider a red colour in the reception area.  What’s good about using red?

PHIL:  It’s striking.

LORRAINE:  It’s alert.

YANU:  It’s passionate.

KAY:  It’s fiery.

LYNDI:  Now what’s bad about the colour red?

Get the idea?

Recently I attended an ideas session at ICE. It was the Emerge Networking session, a bi-monthly event designed to aid local creative networking.  This session was about shaping Coventry City Council’s Arts Policy, run by Laura Elliott from Artspace and Caroline Foxhall, freelance consultant and former Director of External Relations and Development from Arts Council England, West Midlands.

Actually I hadn’t been looking forward to it.  I wasn’t sure what ideas I could contribute, if any, and felt daunted.  But I did want to network and I am interested in the future of Coventry’s arts development.

Laura and Caroline put up the key points they wanted creatives to consider, and then gave out red and green sticky dots.  We were asked to put a red dot next to a key factor important for us as artists, and a green dot next to a key factor for the people of Coventry.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I had been expecting to be asked to generate ideas for the arts policy. I was relieved to be asked instead just to analyse.

Then in a separate session we were asked to consider certain factors and discuss ideas for implementing them.

What I particularly liked was the way Caroline and Laura asked for our participation.  The dots were simple, but allowed us to stand up and move about. Creatives are particularly notorious for wanting to ‘do’ rather than listen, so this was an ideal medium.  The session was also clearly split into analysis and generation of ideas.

So next time you want to hold ‘an ideas session’, get specific about what you want.  Do you want fresh ideas, or idea analysis?

Spend a few minutes planning the best way to do this. If you can find the right method, you’ll move forwards incredibly fast and avoid the ‘one step forwards, one step back’ attitude of unclear thinking.  There are many many tools to do this. The work of  Edward de Bono is a good place to start.

Ladies and gentlemen, ask not what your meeting can do for you, but what you can do for your meeting!

How to describe your ideas

Do you often have to describe ideas to others? Do you ever have to sell your vision to someone? Here are some tips for explaining a new vision, or abstract idea to somebody for the first time.

This is by no means an easy thing to do.  How do you let someone else see what is only in your own imagination?  How can you do it so accurately that a listener can almost see it, touch it and taste your vision?

As you know, I work in the creative industries and regularly have to describe my ideas to others. This extremely important skill was highlighted the other day while in a training session for Creative Partnerships.

We were put into pairs and one partner was given a postcard. Partners sat back to back. On the postcard was a work of art. The artwork was fairly complex.  The task was to describe the postcard to the partner behind, while they drew a sketch from your description. Sounds easy? Not at all!

It is so important to be accurate when trying to sell your vision. Whether your ideas are for a work of art or a future event, if your description is poor, your listener will lose confidence. Or get the wrong end of the stick completely. But if your descriptive powers are accurate, people will clearly visualise your idea, and they’ll be sold! Do you want people to sign up for your ideas? Then try improving your descriptive powers now!

Try this exercise. Grab scrap paper and a pen. I will describe a work of art, and you draw it. Afterwards you can follow the link to see if your sketch is anything like the real thing!

This painting looks German in style. It uses a lot of blues and greys. It is an abstract painting, and the images represented are quite surreal. The style might be called Dada by an art critic. Looking at the picture, it feels heavy and brooding, like a war is going on.

In the very foreground of the picture, at the bottom right hand corner is something that looks like a white, headless, naked female mannikin. Her left arm ends in a red glove and is raised. Instead of a head, a horizontal line balances on top of her neck.

Behind her, in the midground and still to the far right, is something that looks like a grey chimney. The chimney is in five pieces, stacked one of top of the other. The chimney probably takes up about a tenth of the painting’s width and reaches two thirds up. The very top chimney stack is shaped like a watering can. On stack number three is another ‘watering can’ style spout, this time in red and pointing towards the middle of the picture.

In the centre of the picture, in the midground and taking up about two-thirds of the available space, is a grey kettle-shaped cow. We see the cow head-on. The cow’s horns are white and its nose is stuck inside a white cone, that extends upward like a trunk.

In the background of the painting, the top third is thin white clouds washed against a pale blue sky. At the top left hand side, two skinny blue fish intertwine with the clouds.

The bottom tenth of the background is grey. The middle of the background is white. 

Okay, put your pen down and let’s see how well we did.

Click here to see the real painting. Does your sketch look anything like that?

I missed out some details. Try having a go yourself. This will definitely improve your ability to convey your ideas to others. So go on, start improving your descriptive powers and see how quickly you can inspire others by really selling your vision!

Creative thinking games and exercises 1 – freeing the imagination

Want a toolkit for your ideas?  Over the next few weeks I will be uploading .pdfs of my favourite creative thinking games and exercises.

I have organised my collection of games into four categories: freeing the imagination, generating ideas, evaluating ideas, and clarifying ideas.

Hopefully this will enable you to find the right creative game you need for the job!

I will also add on a fifth instalment which will cover complete thinking frameworks.

As you will find when your read the .pdfs, some games are for individuals, some for teams.  Some are desk-based and some are very physical.  Some are for your mind, and some for mind and body.  All of them are fun and will get your creative juices flowing nicely!

The first instalment, Creative Thinking Games 1 – Freeing The Imagination, is a collection of games that are great to play before you brainstorm, or when you need to warm up your creativity.

Be sure to check back for the next instalment on generating ideas.  And by the way, what are your favourite thinking games?