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The Secret to Developing Great Ideas

It starts with welcoming all of our ideas, no matter how impossible they seem.

By Sky Motion/Shutterstock
By Sky Motion/Shutterstock

Though biased, I don’t know that another profession is as routinely taxed by the tightrope of integrity and commerce as “professional writer.” The vocation has always bore the unsmiling weight of endless implications.

A good, scholarly writer, is one that doesn’t mistake density for sophistication. In fiction, talent is knowing when and how style ought to eclipse substance.  Journalistic prowess is rated the cheapest by an over-abundance of two cents, except in the instances wherein the opposite is true. Frustrating this even further are the monetary extremes that bookend the careers of the lucky few that manage to achieve a sustainable living.

Vitalizing (and sometimes suffocating) all of the vexations mentioned above, is the ontological throughline we call “ideas.” Often abstract but reflective on principal, ideas are the atoms of industry and innovation.

Historically, there has been some debate among the titans of thought regarding the intimacies of neurology’s relationship to forms and patterns but none of these would argue against the process’ position as a  prized mammalian achievement. On the topic, the late prolific futurist behind one of the most satisfyingly elusive screenplays in American history, Arthur C. Clarke,  once remarked:

New ideas pass through three periods: “1) It can’t be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it’s not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!”  

With meditations that basically supply flesh to the bones of Clarke’s whimsy, WeTransfer penned their second annual Ideas Report.

The exhaustive new paper is staffed by responses from 20,000 people who identify as ‘creatives’ alongside essays written by established professionals whom the public has honored with the very same distinction;  namely commentator Roxanne Gay,  musician John Legend, photographer David Uzochukwu, and New York based curator, Debbie Millman. With the two exercises allied, the authors set out to explore all the mechanisms essential to evaluating ideas. From the report:“Ideas are a messy business. They’re maddening and unpredictable. There are dead ends, wrong turns and all manner of false starts. But we couldn’t leave it at that. You see, having an idea is only half the battle. Once the lightning bolt of inspiration has hit, that’s when the real work begins. What makes a bad idea? What is the relationship between bad and good ideas? And what role do bad ideas play in the creative process?”

Tea leaves in-sync

The study begins by investigating the most pervasive obstructions to ingenuity. Together the top crust of responses identifies pedestrian life and self-censure to be repeat offenders. Forty-two percent of would-be auteurs say their day-job consistently keeps them from realizing their opus,  while a comparable majority occasion money concerns, social media, and over-editing.

I should note that although 100% of the survey pool identified as creatives, 75% to 90% additionally earn a full-time living on the back of this assessment (some as executives—some as subordinates).

The filtration process seems to be much less forgiving for those who are compensated for their passion. Seventy-two percent of this demographic end up tossing out more than half of the ideas they conceive—out of fear that these ideas are not even strong enough to be shared with colleagues and one in five respondents only bring about 10% of their ideas to the table.

Sadly, many of the creative leaders that were queried in the new report said that they prefer an asymmetrical variance composed of garbage and rare gems as opposed to a neat bundle exclusively containing quartz.

“The extremes are what matter, not the average or the norm. In most innovation settings, an organization would prefer 20 bad ideas and one outstanding idea to 21 merely good ideas,” the authors explained.

It is then up to those occupying said organizations to demarcate quarts from tanzanite. The researchers behind the study have devised a two-phase system to hurry this affair along.

Phase 1:  This is the idea generation phase. Here is where you must exercise the least prejudice. No idea is too high concept, risible or subtle. As previously noted in academic literature covered by Ladders, the best we have to offer (conceptually) is typically imprisoned by the tyranny of perception, whether that of others or ourselves.

Phase 2 forgives the folly most of us observe in phase one. Here is where we must determine which ideas deserve restoration/expansion. Every brilliant piece of music you’ve ever heard, every great play you’ve ever seen, and every great book you’ve ever read was at one time little more than a crude sperm cell racing a bunch of other half-baked tadpoles toward the egg of development.

Unlike how reproduction actually works, we can rely on judgment and our sixth sense to distinguish the Platos from the Palins. Forty-seven percent of the survey pool use research to determine whether or not an idea deserves maturing, 18% achieve the same by asking family and friends, and the remaining 31% trust their own intuition.

Those that employ self-reflection and nothing else,  ask themselves a key question by which a great idea will either live or die:

  1. Is it original? (52%)
  2. Is it timely/relevant? (40%)
  3. Will it make the world better? (27%)
  4. Can I make money with it? (26%)
  5. Do I have the necessary skills to pull it off? (24%)

Once the deliberation is complete, 44%  of respondents said that they’ll pursue an idea irrespective of how many times it gets shot down, while 23% adhere to the three strike rule.

I’m tempted to applaud such reasoned and principled approaches to an inherently impossible inquiry but this ridged continuum might actually be the wrong way of going about it. Remember, the biggest disconnect with creative executives and their staff was the value of bad ideas. The authors add,

“All ideas help frame and contextualize each other, like pool balls on a table mid-game. When you step up to assess your  options, some shots are simpler than others. Some are risky, some are predictable, some  seem impossible but open up at a later stage.”

In the initial stage of brainstorming, we need to knight bad ideas as integral components to the growth of good ones. In the Fall of 1880, Vincent Van Gogh decided to move to Brussels to pursue a career as a painter; a decision that didn’t pay off until his sister in law optioned his posthumous collection several decades later.

The Icarus predicament

There are a few reasons why having your calling and your career co-mingle blunt the vitality of both of them, but mandated co-operation might be chief among them. When money is at stake (yours’s, your colleagues’, and your employer’s) you’re forced to willingly replace your heart with a pacemaker.

The pulses, as a rule, have to be synthetic because every idea you conceive has to have other minds in mind. Moreover, failure as a consequence of chance-taking is stripped of its nobility; in a corporate context, risks are surveyed with a utilitarian philosophy. In other words, if Icarus had not been previously cautioned by his father Daedalus, an experienced and elderly craftsman, the moral of his story would be very different. None of this is to suggest that earning a living for the thing you’d be doing if the world suddenly went ablaze has to either corrupt or prohibit the authenticity of the experience.

Orwell succinctly compartmentalized the primary agents that motivate civilizations to create outside of monetary recognition all the way back in 1946.

Egotism, Aesthetic Appeasement (pretty turns of phrase for their own sake, melodies without meaning, a painting of lilies), Clarity/Posterity and the desire to do whatever it is you can to move society in a certain direction. All of these exist to varying degrees in any self-identified creative person.

The trick to keeping your soul at the crossroads comes down to ensuring the truest, purest motivations are never overpowered by the materialistic ones or perpetually at odds with them.

Despite that last bit being heretical in some communities, I contest that there are more than a few instances wherein a little bit of survival acumen does the imagination good. It’s a tired misconception that calls creativity a mindless fire. Creativity is a dog. Loyal if you feed it at all, unpredictable if you do so intermittently and sluggish if you do so too much. The four insights found in the study, Less Meeting, More Thinking, Roxanne Gay, Making Money only Matters if the Planet is still Around, John Legend, Trust Your Gut, David Uzochukwu, and You need more than you think, Debbie Millman, are the concrete that bridge pragmatism and creative integrity; saying in so many words that to sustain a life of great ideas you have to begin by sustaining a life in the first place.

Conceived wisdom schizophrenically dictates that to be compensated for the things you make, is to be compensated handsomely and sparingly, and appoints both as treasonous markers of success to those looking in from the outside.

On balance, writers and readers keep two sets of books as far as this is concerned. Publicly,  we claim to be on the same page about the way money dilutes artistic vision. John Kennedy Toole is a lyrical pioneer, JK Rowling though lauded both critically and commercially, is not. The thing is, privately, our survey of the quality of a  piece of art is informed by the tangible measures of success that it has achieved. In practice, sometimes history is late honoring The Burial of The Count of Orgaz, and sometimes the same is true for something like The Saw franchise. In both cases, delayed monetary acclaim begged the masses to second guess their first appraisal.

Personally I adopt a similar principle about money and integrity that the world does regarding power and corruption. I don’t think money perverses motive, I think it just accents it. In actuality, there isn’t a force that maltreats the evolution of ideas quite like the perception of others. If we care to, we can suspend the canonized moral of Icarus in favor of the empathetic perspective introduced by the Michael Jordan of Flemish Renaissance painters.

At first glance of Bruegel the elder’s iconic Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, you might miss the tragic figure that funds its namesake.

That’s because that’s the point. The painting more obviously depicts ships going about their ventures, a farmer attending to a flock of animals, as brilliantly noted by philosopher Alain De Botton,  a plow hand toiling away, embodying the old German proverb: “no plow stops for the dying man.”

Meanwhile, Icarus, once filled with hubris and vigor at the prospect of mastering flight, drowns unceremoniously at the bottom right of the painting.

When sitting among our ideas we too often become preoccupied with our legacies, as if the last thing we make will persist in either infamy or revelry. The truth is harmoniously dour and redemptive. The very best the majority of us can hope for is the opportunity to change the world for the better one ripple at a time.

Sometimes tides are altered by reason of singular forceful typhoons, but more often than not waves are the end result of the admirable thrashing erected by the struggles that precede them.

Although no one batted an eye at the immediate failure of Icarus, the success of his courage continues to bring tanzanite to the shore.

Originally published on Ladders.

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