How you get ideas

Marilyn Von Savant said “A good idea will keep you awake during the morning, but a great idea will keep you awake during the night.” I’m sure we’ve all had a time when we woke up at night with a great idea about a project we were working on, a blog entry we were writing or a surprise for a loved one.

But where do these ideas come from?  How do you get them?  And is there anything you can do to increase your chances of having these nuctural rays of light?

Way back in the day, I read a book by James Webb Young (A Technique for Producing Ideas) who believed you could train yourself in 5 steps:

  1. arm yourself with information – both specific to the topic at hand and generic (i.e. anything you find interesting and that doesn’t relate to the specific ‘thing’ you are trying to address)
  2. start to form relationships – mull over the findings in your head and start to sketch out ideas by looking at the information in different ways, trying to ascertain relationships between different elements
  3. drop it – stop thinking about the problem, move onto something else and let it set in your subconscious
  4. now you’ve got it – when you least expect it, it will suddenly come to you and you have your Eureka! moment
  5. mould the idea – no idea is ever perfect from the start, so this is where the hard work begins.  Now you’re ready to start developing the idea into a worthwhile proposition to partners, customers, etc

More recently, Steven Johnson wrote a book ‘Where good ideas come from‘ about this subject and created the following short film.

My key take-out from both of these is that ideas are born out of everything and everyone around us, so we should never stop questioning, stop learning or stop trying – you learn more from doing something wrong than from doing nothing at all.

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2 thoughts on “How you get ideas

  1. A great writer – I forget which – said, “If a man falls dead at your feet you should be noting the strange colour of his lips.” Graham Greene observed that, “Every writer must have a sliver of ice in his heart.”

    In order to create what matters we have to spend our lives observing, eaves dropping, becoming students of the human condition.

    And then be prepared to relate what we see, as it appears, without fear or favour.

    • Damn, now I’m wishing I’d been able to put it so eloquently. I read the James Webb Young book when I was first starting out in agency like and it is one of the few marketing books (if you can call it that) that I kept.

      The problem nowadays is that we give ourselves very little time to carry out this process properly. Everything feels very much like it has to happen now, now, now – which is why everyone loves holidays and feels so invigorated when they come back and full of spark and ideas.

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