Before we get too far into this, I have a confession to make:
Most of my ideas are garbage.
Okay, maybe not “most,” but easily half.
On the days I go back through my notebooks, I don’t often think: “Ah, what memories.” I think “Ah, what was I doing?”
Maybe your ideas are better. Maybe you are able to crank out brilliance with every stroke of the keyboard, every click of the mouse, every move of the brush.
Actually, I wish that for you.
As for me, my idea pool reminds me of a lighthouse landing. For every one or two brilliant flashes, there are 1,000 grey and dull and boring rocks.
Now for a second confession:
I often have NO idea which idea is going to be successful.
How to Be Smarter Than People Smarter Than You — my biggest post — was clumsily thumbed out in the back of a Toyota Highlander on a trip to Florida with my family. When my father-in-law took his shift driving, I casually cranked out a viral post.
This does not happen on demand, even years later.
Besides, why would you want it to? If the work of dreaming stuff up inside your head and fighting through the agonizing process of birthing delivered predictable results every time — even if that result were massive success — you would soon get bored.
I know this because I know you. You are easily bored.
This is your greatest weakness and strength.
At her worst, the creative genius lacks discipline. She falls into The Cycle of Unfulfillment and finishes nothing. Disappointment and frustration will always follow she who is habitually incomplete.
This is why I obey The Process:
— — —
A flicker of an idea …
A burst of neurons in the back of your brain …
Although the world keeps spinning around, you freeze in time and space. Goosebumps ripple down your skin as your heart accelerates into a crescendo of excitement. With every beat, it seems to say “Yes. Yes. Yes.”
Your senses go black as your true vision takes over. The music of the muses fills your ears. This is THE IDEA. The Chosen One. It consumes you with its temerity and frightens you with its audacity.
What to do with this radiant energy?
A suggestion: Nothing.
Well, not nothing. Write it down. Use a notepad or your arm or Evernote. Remove it from your working memory.
Why? Because the electric shock which fills you during the inception of an idea is the dream state. The moment you rush home and begin work, you move into execution state, which is a completely different set of functions.
Here is advice which worked for me:
When you get the adrenaline rush of a new idea, don’t use it for working. Use it to dream up more ideas.
Write down the idea. Then write down the next 57 which come on the back of that.
I do my best to keep everything. Everything.
What benefits come from this obsessive idea hoarding?
Except for the times I see a trend developing and think “didn’t I…?” Yes. I did.
Except for the times I find a fourth grade journal and discover a story which fits perfectly in what I’m working on now.
Except for the times when I squint back into the distance, where I believed nothing of value existed, and find the tiniest flicker of a flame.
A lighthouse I never knew was there…
Sometimes the light is in front of me. Sometimes behind.
When dreaming, the artist must always be looking to the future and the past.
— — —
Admittedly this is the least fun part of the process.
At this point, your high-flying Icarus’s wings begin to melt and you plummet back down to the cold and wet reality of your new idea:
Someone has done this before.
Of course they have. Do you want to be original? Start trying to order your coffee with nonsense syllables and words you invent on the spot. There is a name for that. It isn’t “creativity.”
Yes, this has been done before. Now, you need to find out why. You need to find out how. You need to find out who.
Here’s what’s cute: coming up with an idea and taking it as far as your current knowledge and opinions can go.
Here’s what professional: coming up with an idea and using that idea to stretch yourself, learn more, go further, surprise yourself.
Art is, reliably and unavoidably, an act of indefinite faith. You cannot see the end of the journey before it begins. You only walk in the direction you think is the way, and then discover the next turn. Over each hill there is a new inkling of a path. Should you follow it down or turn back?
The question to ask, while in the development phase, is not:
“How fast can I get through this?”
“How far does this rabbit hole go?”
Scurry down the rabbit hole like little Alice. Find your Wonderland. Dip into madness if necessary. You are looking for esoteric knowledge, the kind of information known by few and remembered by even fewer.
The deeper you go, the better you understand what your idea really is … and what it isn’t.
— — —
Equipped with the energy to jump on an idea, but armed with the perspective to give it focus, it’s time to begin.
You can now make a work of art which is new and better because you have done the work. You have studied like a professional. You have gone further than others will.
But, sadly, it isn’t enough.
It isn’t enough because many people study. Many people dream. Many people research. Many people piddle.
Doing is the final step because it is transformative in itself. The act of creation is something raw and primal. It is instinct and fire and pure emotion. I often cannot remember a single conscious thought when I come out on the other side.
Do not pretend the creative process is anything less than transcendent, an excuse to rise above the noise and the mess of the everyday.
For these reasons, creation is the most addicting substance in my life.
To be frank, I am unsure whether I can recommend this life to anyone else. It is my blessing and my curse.
If you feel the same way, I can only say — I’m sorry.
But also, welcome.
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B
— — —
Believe me when I say nearly every dollar I’ve made in the last 3 years — corporate, freelance, or otherwise — is a direct result of the ideas I have (both quality and quantity).
I finally got my idea-generating process down in an ebook: The Ultimate Guide to Infinite Ideas, which I’m giving away for the price of an email address.
This article first appeared on Medium.