It all starts with an idea.
History books are filled with examples of inventors changing the world with a single idea. Here are some, perhaps lesser-known examples of ideas that made it big.
- In 1901, a 21-year-old from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a friend spent two years in a small woodshed, building an engine to power their bicycles. Harley-Davidson was officially founded two years later.
- At the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1904, Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian immigrant was selling his version of a waffle to hungry patrons when his next door neighbor, an ice cream vendor, ran out of cups for his dessert. The two pooled their resources to create the first ice cream cone.
- Hedy Lamarr, a popular actress in the 1930’s and 1940’s, filed a patent for a new torpedo guidance system that allowed for radio signals to skip from frequency to frequency, making torpedoes nearly undetectable. Not only did this change the face of warfare at sea during WWII, but the technology pioneered the creation of modern GPS, WIFI and Bluetooth.
- In 1967, John-Shepherd Barron, a Scottish inventor, devised a machine that could dispense cash instead of candy bars. The first ATM was installed in London not long afterward. The fact that he came up with this while sitting in the bathtub might be proof that our best ideas do, indeed, come to us in the shower.
- In the 1970’s a man named Gary Ross Dahl began to sell Pet Rocks by the thousands, an idea he brainstormed based on a conversation he had with friends at a bar that later made him a millionaire.
- The founder of SPANX, Sarah Blakely, started her empire by cutting the feet off some pantyhose before going out on the town.
Certainly, it was more than just an idea that eventually made these ventures wildly successful. Skill, discipline, persistence, a healthy dose of marketing prowess, and a hundred other variables likely had more than a little to do with it. Still, their success can largely be traced back to one imagined, purposeful thought.
Where do ideas come from?
Like me, you might be tempted to answer this question with a question. Preferably, the question, “Who knows?” But really, ideas can come from anywhere at any time, even while standing on our heads and chewing gum while humming the National Anthem. Stranger things have happened. Sometimes though, we need a little extra inspiration, a way to call on that ever-finicky muse who would rather stay home in sweats than join you for a night out on Taco Tuesday.
Here are some tips to help you generate your next big idea.
I have an Ideas notebook I keep on hand for those moments when genius strikes but, when it doesn’t, I brainstorm. I start with a theme, concept or topic and build on it, creating connections to the main point in a non-linear way. This is called Mind Mapping, and I use it sometimes when I’m developing new characters for my stories or my novel. I start with a character’s name and branch out from there, identifying quirks, flaws, or physical and emotional characteristics that will give them a little more life and make them less one-dimensional. Some of what I write ends up in my characters’ backstories, but many other details end up making an appearance sooner or later in that piece or another.
Because I’m a nerd and organizational tools are my jam, I also practice this at work. This method is great for developing professional personas or establishing themes based on a list of business requirements. One of my favorite Mind Map starters is Milanote, a tool that helps creatives organize their ideas into visual boards. The app even offers templates for first timers, and a free version that’s more robust than most. I used it to create my novel’s outline and it has been a lifesaver, keeping me on track as I continue to work towards achieving my NaNoWriMo goals this month.
Curiosity should be one of the gifts we give ourselves as creatives. Getting out of our comfort zones and trying something new can open our minds and inspire us in the best of ways. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a friend’s improv party. Theater games like, “Yes, and…” encourage participants to play off each other, by accepting a partner’s idea and building from that idea, rather than shooting it down. For example, your partner runs out of a bank with a bag filled with money and hands it to you. You say, “Yes,” and, do what? It’s a hilarious way to get out of your own head and come up with out-of-the-box solutions for crazy problems that you may not have considered under normal circumstances. And it’s fun!
However, if the thought of acting in front of others gives you hives, you can always engage in a solo version of this same concept by finding an online first-line generator (which is something I also do when I’m stuck). It’s comforting to know inspiration is just a click away and, bonus – you won’t have to apply to enter the Witness Protection Program to hide from your neighbor who may or may not have seen you embarrass yourself in public.
No man is an island. Sometimes our creative seedlings need a little love to grow. Despite the fact that I, unfortunately, have never been able to keep a plant alive for any extended period of time, I do wholeheartedly believe this.
Even though, most of my work as a consultant is solitary, I try to find opportunities to reach out to my team for support. This is especially true if I’ve been circling a problem for days without finding a valid solution. Sometimes all it takes is a little direction from someone outside the work to give us the inspiration we need. Listening to someone else’s unique perspective on a creative project can open our minds to something we might not have considered before.
I had a writing teacher tell me once that a great way to learn to write dialogue is to immerse yourself in a crowd. Since then, I sometimes forgo headphones when I’m on the train or at a coffeeshop and just listen. I know this isn’t really collaborating (and I swear, it’s not about eavesdropping either), but you’d be surprised what you can learn about the ways people of all ages communicate, including valuable information about diction, dialect, and language in general.
When all else fails, take a brain break. Meditation or yoga can help create mind space for new ideas, but so can setting aside some time every day to not engage in deep work. Turn off your screens, spend time with family or friends, or go for a walk. Draw. I find that coloring in an adult coloring book (yes, really) is exactly the kind of mindless activity I need to put me into a creative flow state. Music helps too. Some of the playlists in my music app are titled by color, so I can choose one based on my mood. Songs on my “Red” playlist are for my high energy days, while my “Blue” playlist is for days when I need to calm down.
What are some of the methods you use to generate ideas? Let me know!
As we transition into this new season of gratefulness and thanks, I want to extend my thanks and appreciation to all my readers and supporters, both near and far. To those of you who are near, best wishes for a safe, healthy and Happy Thanksgiving.