A recurring theme of this blog is going to be ideas. I define an idea as a thought that inspires exploration of possibilities, actions, and outcomes. With that definition in mind, some fun questions can be asked and discussed. Where do ideas come from? What do you do with an idea once you have one? Do you find ideas or do they find you?
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on ideas, but I can tell you I have many years of experience guiding teachers to ideas and through them. Ideas are elusive and slippery. As an instructional coach I experience on a daily basis how deeply personal the process of generating and giving energy to ideas can be. Our ideas are as unique as each of us so there’s never going to be one magical formula for idea-getting that works for everyone. With that said, I’ve witnessed the fact that conjuring gems of inspiration is something everyone has the ability to do. In future posts I’ll describe methods for working with ideas that I’ve found useful, but first I think it is valuable to share a warmup exercise that I frequently do with teachers, students, and even with myself. Give it a try. It only requires you to devote a bit of time, attention, and most important, intention to observing and gaining an understanding of when, where, and how ideas find their way to you.
Maybe ideas occur to you during your commute to or from work. Perhaps you experience creative clarity while jogging, walking, or during your morning shower. You’re probably already aware of times when ideas are likely to occur but now you’re going to give extra attention to details and you’re going to turn up the volume on your own awareness of what’s happening when ideas strike. You’re going to become as attuned to the process as possible and you’re going to make note of it.
Keeping good notes is a key ingredient of this exercise. How you choose to keep notes is totally up to you but make sure you have a way of doing it no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Personally, I always have a little 3 x 5 notebook and a pocket-sized pen with me. You may prefer to type notes on your smartphone, record voice memos, draw pictures, or perhaps you just have a good memory. Do whatever works best for you but keep in mind, the ability to be detailed and spontaneous as you record your observations is essential.
Throughout the duration of this exercise I suggest you adopt the mindset that any and all ideas that come to you are not important. I’ll bet this sounds completely counterintuitive but it will free you from the burden of self-editing, problem solving, over planning, and the type of preemptive angst that quickly sucks the life out of an idea before it has a chance to crawl.
Give yourself license to focus only on conditions under which ideas make an appearance, not on what the idea is about. If you can’t bring yourself to fully do this, or if you happen to come up with a truly brilliant idea that you feel you must hold onto, jot down just enough to remember it, but don’t spend too much time overthinking it. Make a mental bookmark and move on, at least for now. Imagine that you have the ability to step outside of yourself and watch yourself as you get ideas. Try to view yourself as a neutral observer. As you do this, pay attention to the following:
When do you get ideas?
What time of day seems to be most conducive to ideas? Are you a morning person or a night person? Do ideas come to you during your preferred time of day or do they pop up at the opposite end of the day? Maybe they come to you at seemingly random times, but if you pay close attention and take good notes, you may find there’s a pattern that you haven’t yet noticed.
Where are you when you get ideas?
Many writers and artists speak of places that inspire them. Perhaps you have such a place. On the other hand, you may wander into unfamiliar places that cause you to stumble upon new ideas. Make yourself aware of these places and you may be surprised.
What are you doing?
What type of activity brings out ideas? Are you deeply focused on an activity when ideas come to you or do ideas begin to emerge as your mind wanders? Perhaps you experience both.
Who is with you or not with you?
What impact does the presence of others have on your ideas? Do ideas percolate when you are alone, with time to yourself or do they tend to happen when you are with other people? If you’re with others are you interacting with them or are they simply background characters?
What do you see, hear, smell taste?
What kind of input are your senses receiving? Are there smells that kick ideas into overdrive? Maybe there are sounds, music, colors, visual elements, foods or drinks that put you into the flow of getting ideas. Pay attention to all of your senses. What are they busy doing while you’re busy generating ideas?
What does getting an idea feel like?
Do you have a physical and emotional response to an idea? I know I do. For me, it’s difficult to separate what my body feels from what I’m feeling emotionally, but that may not be the case for you. When I get an idea I experience a physical sensation of excitement. It’s a lightness in my chest accompanied by a sensation in my stomach similar to going quickly down a hill in a car or rollercoaster. This is almost always followed by a feeling of urgency and confusion. It’s as though the idea is moving faster than I can absorb it and I must grab onto it at that very moment in time. It’s similar to how I feel when I’m running late for something, like the bus is about to leave without me. All of this happens in a brief moment. I’ve experienced this repeatedly in my life and paying attention to it has made it familiar. The more familiar it becomes the more I’m able to expand the moment, explore it, understand it, and later tap into it.
Your project is to become a documentarian. Observe where and when the odds of encountering ideas are increased and under what conditions they occur. It’s not likely that this will always lead to a recipe for summoning ideas on demand, but it will give you some clues to how you can put yourself in the physical, emotional, and mental space to increase the odds. It will also help you understand where you become overwhelmed by the rush of thoughts that can accompany an idea. Make this an ongoing project for at least two or three weeks. Check in with yourself and remind yourself to become aware. Above all, have fun with this.