How to unlock your creativity and brainstorm great ideas
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So many of us have been there: staring at a blank page, trying to come up with brilliant ideas for the next brainstorming meeting. Or this clever opening line for your presentation. This idea that will simply delight you. It’s agony. You know you can do it. But where are the ideas? They should be here by now, right?!
My favorite depiction of this is in the movie Adaptation. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) sits down to write and just stares at the blank page of his typewriter. His inner monologue:
Begin. Begin. How to start…
[He stares at the wall, waiting for inspiration to strike.]
I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. But I should write something first and then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin… OK…
So I have to set the topics…
He can’t keep his mind from wandering. (Hungry doesn’t help.) Finally he puts his hands on the typewriter, and then a thought occurs to him…
Maybe banana nut. That’s a good muffin.
Yeh! So close. And yet nothing. It was painful to watch – and so understandable. (Though, in fairness, banana nut makes a good muffin.)
What do you do when this happens? When you know you have ideas but just… stuck?
Whether you’re trying your hand at a script like Charlie or brainstorming ideas for an upcoming meeting, there are a few things you can do to unleash your creativity and get the ideas flowing.
Career coach Natalie Fisher said she’d start with bare bones: Think about what you already know on the subject. You may have talked about it at a recent meeting, chatted with a friend, or read an article on the subject. If not, do a search. Let the topic spin in your head.
Then ask yourself a few questions to get started:
- What do I know about this?
- What’s my best guess?
- What would be a next step I could take to move forward?
- If I knew what would it look like?
- What would that be more fun?
“When you feel stuck, you can usually break free by asking yourself some really good questions and knowing it’s just a temporary place to be stuck. There’s always something that pulls you out of a tight spot,” Fisher said.
You may need to call or text a friend for information. We often feel like we have to make it on our own when trying to be creative. Sometimes connecting with someone else is the catalyst that unleashes our own creativity and gets ideas flowing.
When you feel stuck, you can usually get out of a bind by asking yourself some really good questions.
Then you have to do the hardest part: getting started.
Throw words to the side. You don’t have to be brilliant or inspire anyone. Sometimes our own perfectionism gets in the way and that’s why we stare at a blank screen for so long. Get that flow going. Do not worry. You can delete what you have and start over, it doesn’t matter.
The idea is to turn on the faucet of your creativity and see what comes out.
“When I’m stuck, I remind myself not to focus on perfection and the power of composite progress,” says Sarah Doody, founder of the Career Strategy Lab, who has helped clients find jobs at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, and Find Nordstrom, Spotify and BlueOrigin.
“It’s so easy to stare at a blank screen for minutes or hours,” says Doody. “But I find once I start there is momentum because then I have something to work with and the ideas start to flow and with progress comes confidence!”
It’s a concept writer Anne Lamott calls SFD or S—-y First Draft.
In her book, Bird by Bird, on the art of writing, Lamott describes SFD as follows:
All good writers write them. That’s how they get good second drafts and great third drafts.
People tend to look at successful authors who are publishing their books and maybe even doing well financially, and think that every morning they sit down at their desk and feel like a million bucks, feel great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push up their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get any stiffs out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court clerk.
But that’s just the imagination of the uninitiated.
Don’t wait until you fancy a million bucks. Don’t wait until you have the “perfect” idea. Just start.
This is great advice for writing a book and also for brainstorming ideas. Sometimes we think we can’t put down an idea because it’s not great. Not enough cooking. But this is your list! No matter how good or bad that idea is, just write it down.
What’s really important is withholding judgment. It’s easy to write down an idea, but if it’s not perfect then you start breaking it down like you’re a judge on a reality competition show and you get frustrated and walk away.
Be kind to yourself. Give your creative brain space to come up with a list of ideas—some good, some bad—that will help keep things going and eventually lead you to your best ideas.
Most people approach brainstorming the wrong way, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and author of books like Think Again, said in an interview with Amazon.
“The first ideas that come to mind are usually the most conventional,” Grant said. “If you want to be creative, you need variety.”
A first inclination might be to just gather creative colleagues in a room and start there, Grant said. But this doesn’t work for many reasons:
- Some people might be introverts and end up being ignored
- Others may hold back ideas that feel too “out of the box.”
- You could end up in groupthink, where everyone agrees on an idea and stifles less popular ideas
“Nobody wants to look stupid,” Grant said.
Instead, he said, each individual should put their ideas on paper before the meeting. And bring lots of ideas.
“There is evidence that in a brainstorming exercise or a brainwriting exercise, your first 20 ideas are actually less creative than your next 15,” Grant explained.
If you’re in a team brainstorming meeting, try to support other people’s ideas instead of criticizing or competing with them. Back them up as they go — and try to riffle on their suggestions a bit and build on them. A supportive energy and flow – as opposed to a defensive or competitive one – can create the right environment.
A former colleague and I often joked that our ideas were so good they were bigger than a brainstorm. It was a brain HURRICANE. We even wrote these meetings into our Outlook calendars. It was a great way to support each other’s ideas and get excited.
When you feel this way, you achieve a lot more than when you worry about being judged.
Read interviews with successful people and find out what their tricks are to get ideas. Not all of them will work for you, but you might find one that does.
Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, was known for doing some of his best creative thinking while walking. In the book Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson recalls inviting Jobs to speak on a panel discussion. Jobs refused but agreed to come and walk with Isaacson instead.
“Little did I know that a long walk is his favorite way to strike up a serious conversation,” Isaacson writes.
There’s data to back it up: Stanford University researchers asked more than 170 college students to do certain tasks while sitting and then walking. The results? Students were “overwhelmingly” more creative walking than sitting.
Walking opens the free flow of ideas, the researchers concluded.
Many other executives are known to favor walking meetings, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, and former LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
Don’t be afraid to share your creative or unusual ideas in meetings, says writer Abby Wolfe.
“The thing is, you never know where that ‘wild’ thought will lead,” writes Wolfe. “Sure, it could be rejected outright. Or maybe your suggestion will inspire your teammate to come up with an even better and more brilliant idea. But maybe, just maybe, the decision maker will surprise you and approve your original proposal. “
“I’m not saying these have to be inherently bizarre or fantastic. I’m just saying that sometimes we have to push aside convention and abandon the standard form (at least temporarily) in order to find the best solutions and take things to the next level,” adds Wolfe.
So go for a walk. Call a friend or colleague. Write your own SFD. Share this wild idea. The main thing is don’t let your inner perfectionist or your fear of what your co-workers might say throw you off course. Open the faucet and let the ideas flow. You never know when the next big idea will come along – or what it might lead to.
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