I’ve casually commented to close friends how the best ideas I’ve ever had have come when I’m in the bathroom. They’ve come in the form of creative solutions, conflict resolutions, or sometimes just better ways to be more efficient at a particular task. Yes, I owe a lot to my small bladder.
For years now, people have pondered over the creative geniuses of the world and asked where good ideas come from. What is it about these special people that gives them this ability? In Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, as described by an article in The Economist, he argues that creativity lies in the potential nature of everyone. That, in fact, creativity is not a lofty gift held by a few. Instead, those who have a strong sense of the problem, those fully vested in the situation, will have the best possibility of finding a creative solution. (I’d argue that it also helps to spend a lot of time in the bathroom.)
Creativity comes to us in a variety of ways. The key seems to be the “freshness factor.” The freshness factor, a term I invented while clipping my fingernails, suggests that the best ideas come to us when we approach a problem from any perspective that is not current, relative, or the norm.
Lehrer supports this idea by talking about a company that is generating ideas and creating new products all the time: 3M. 3M, like Google, has a reputation for being progressive in the way it thinks about thinking. It has become the third-most innovative company in the world simply because of the emphasis it puts on employees taking time away from a problem. Those who work for 3M are often found wandering around and playing games. “This is because interrupting work with a relaxing activity lets the mind turn inward, where it can subconsciously puzzle over subtle meanings and connections,” writes The Economist reviewer. Believe it or not, our brains work quite hard when we daydream—an idea that seems counterintuitive.
CBS’s The Big Bang Theory was just pronounced the No. 1 show in syndication among viewers under 50, and because of this, TBS has become the No. 1 cable network with an average of 3 million viewers per BBT episode. The show is notorious for using real-life theoretical physics despite the average viewer understanding less than 5% of the math. In one episode, the character Sheldon is stuck on a physics problem. He decides that, rather than continue to unsuccessfully focus all his energies on the problem, he will instead do mundane activities. After a brief stint busing at The Cheesecake Factory, he discovers the answer he was looking for.
Not only do we find creativity by stepping away and redirecting our focus, but we also find it when we bring in outside minds and take risks. In marketing, it’s often the person who has no inside attachment to a project that we should rely on for that objective perspective. True, he or she may not have a sense of the client’s desires, but that outsider’s view may bring forth the unconventional idea that could lead to a better way of solving the problem.
If you work in advertising, a simple way of accomplishing this is by rotating your designers. So often we think it makes the most sense to have a designer or writer work with the same brand. Intuitively it makes sense—have the person who knows the brand the best work on the project. The reality is that people get drained. Ideas become stale. 3M requires its engineers to rotate constantly from department to department. This is also why companies who hire young, innovative thinkers tend to be ahead of the curve in terms of productivity and ideas. The naïveté of younger generations “comes with creative advantages,” Mr. Lehrer writes––experience and custom can get in the way of ideas.
You’ve probably noticed, or been a part of, large groups of friends who have a killer dynamic but often have little in common. In Imagine, Lehrer also talks about how bringing in varying perspectives, be they cultural or ethnic, can enhance an idea. It’s important, however, to recognize that group brainstorming sessions are actually a poor way of coming up with ideas. In its most effective form, brainstorming should involve separating and then coming together again to discuss ideas. The dynamic of the group will certainly play a large part when the group reforms.
I came across a great quote in my research for this post. William James wrote, “Genius, in truth, means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way.” Simply put, constantly challenge yourself to approach situations without a preconceived notion of what to do next. Just because it’s been done one way for years past, doesn’t mean a better way doesn’t exist.
So. Maybe we all have the ability to come up with that one, great, big idea. Maybe creativity is nothing more than finding an answer in a way that incorporates a freshness factor. Genius, it seems, can be had by all. As for me, I’ll be puzzling my own genius in a private space; I think you know the one I mean.
Author: Eric Swenson