Get a Bird's-Eye View for Better Ideas
A Process for Breakthrough Innovation
Have you ever noticed that your “Eureka!” moments pop up at the oddest times? In the shower, in a traffic jam, in dreams? What if I said you could have more eureka moments, more often, and more clearly? That it’s just a matter of learning and practicing a simple process?
Caveat emptor: Simple hardly ever means “immediate” or “easy.” Each step in this process must be understood, practiced, and strengthened, like tasks on an assembly line.
An Industrious Process for Producing Ideas
“... [A]n idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements,” wrote ad man James Webb Young in 1939 in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas.
Young put forth that manufacturing new ideas is as controllable and repeatable a process as, say, producing a horseless carriage in one of Mr. Ford’s new factories. You only need know and practice the Principles and Methods, as laid out in his handy guide. And which Brainpicker outlines succinctly.
Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up [of] so called rapidly aging facts.
~ James Webb Young, 1939
That was almost 80 years ago. Before the interstate system, before the information superhighway, before the infrastructure even existed for a 24-hour news cycle. If he thought he had rapidly aging facts back then, what in the world do we have now?
JW Young’s Methodical “Productive Creative Process”
In Young’s Creativity-Is-as-Easy-as-a-Model-T, Patented 5-Step Process, you’re always taking in new information. On purpose. With intent. That’s the first step. And, that’s just another reason to try something new.
As writer Dorothy Parker may (or may not) have quipped, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
Thanks to your venturesome mind, you’re always seeking new input, experiences, ideas, novel ways of doing things. And you, “with your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet” – to borrow from the beloved Doctor – are always sorting them, storing them, turning them over in your mind’s eye, and otherwise “digesting” them. That’s Young’s Step Two.
It’s steps three & four that really “peak” our interest.
Respectively, they are “unconscious processing” and the “a-ha moment.”
By the way, about the “a-ha moment,” Mr. Young got there decades before Oprah. Of course, Archimedes, Einstein, Tesla, and countless other scientists, inventors, artists, thinkers, and tinkers across time have discovered the “science behind eureka, or aha moments. That eureka moment involves first being stuck and then relaxing your mind.”
Relax your mind.
Young writes, “When you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.”
Rene Siegel, writing for Inc., says she’s “solar-powered,” so she heads for a sunny spot for her step three.
When my mom tucked me in at night, if I was worried about some problem or another, she’d tell me to “give it to my subconscious.” My subconscious would work on it overnight, she explained, and it would fill me in on the details later. She was right.
Researchers confirm the great getaway for innovation.
With the brain imaging technology of the twenty-first century, cognitive and neuroscientists exploring the creative process have mapped many of the pieces of our light bulb moments.
They’ve begun to confirm empirically what we knew anecdotally and from legend, like when Archimedes was the first to shout “Eureka!” over two thousand years ago.
According to the tale, Archimedes figured out the solution to a vexing problem whilst taking the waters in the public baths. The prescient point being that he had to backburner it, step away from the office, get a change of scenery, and allow the answers to come percolating up as they would.
In our era, Shelley Carson’s research has shown that novelty, mind-wandering, free association, and distractions are associated with highly creative people. “A distraction may provide the break you need to disengage from a fixation on the ineffective solution,” says the psychologist and Harvard researcher. This pulling away forces an “incubation period.”
By allowing or arranging a distraction, we make an opening for other parts of our brain to contribute, says associate professor of neuroscience at the
University of Guelph in Canada, Mark Fenske.
Obviously, it doesn’t have to be a “great” getaway.
To satisfy Young’s industrial-strength process, you can take a long hot shower or an even longer walk.
In fact, exercise helps get the creative juices flowing, according to Harvard neurologist Alice Flaherty’s research. And, it’s not just the adrenaline and endorphin rush of a hard effort. It’s the dopamine, too.
You guys, neurotransmitters are our creative juices.
Okay, I made that part up. I can’t prove it with research, but it sure does sound right.
For more formal reading on the dopaminergic pathways and their role in the creative process, Psychology Today has a nice overview of Flaherty’s work and related others.
My point being that it’s not just adrenaline junkies, with their skydiving and bungee jumping, who have all the fun. (Blondes neither. I’m just saying.)
In fact, very few human brains are wired such that falling out the sky is a productive brain activity. In the rest of us, our amygdala clenches up faster and tighter than any orifice! When our amygdala closes shop, because we have invoked a fight-or-flight stress response, we shutter creativity and higher cognitive function until such time as we can get back into a perceived safer space. (Or we go to our happy place.)
Not until we have relaxed enough to let our parasympathetic nervous system run the show, do we return to rest-and-digest mode, ready for the ideas to come a-popping.
When you get stuck, get out, get moving, and Go Ape!
Think of it – even if you’ve done it before, a treetop adventure will be a novel experience each and every time. From the activities you choose to do to the people with whom you choose to do them. Imagine the changing seasons, people-watching, new routes and courses, different flora and fauna that you’ll be able to see on each new visit.
There’s just enough of a frisson of risk that your brain will be forced to engage, forced to quit chewing on old problems and fully participate in your chosen “idea incubation period.” Plus, it’s a supervised, harnessed, safety-certified type of risk, so you’re not jeopardizing any influx of dopamine or threatening the chill of your amygdala. When you arrange a distraction, like an afternoon with Go Ape, you’re making an investment in innovation. And fun!
Suzanne Hoenig - Based in the Texas Hill Country, Suzanne is learning the lay of the land and the life upon it. When she’s not hiking, gardening and learning to restore native habitats, she’s working with amazing clients to craft compelling content and grow healthy communities.