November 20, 2015

The mystery of ideation

“An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements” – Valfredo Pareto

What happens during the ‘eureka’ moment? How does a great idea seemingly appear from the ether? Creating a great and original idea seems to be a mysterious and abstract concept, something you can’t force, it just is. While you can sit there and purely through mental effort come up with solutions, often the best idea comes to you when you least expect it. We’ve all heard of or experienced that flash of inspiration, the sudden and clear comprehension of a problem or concept, appearing from ‘out of the blue’ during an unconnected situation.

It is intriguing to consider the relationship between inspiration, conscious effort and the subconscious workings to understand how they interact and bring forth new ideas or a new way of thinking. While this was once a total mystery we have at least for the last 75 years had a standard technique for producing ideas, thanks to James Webb Young.

His book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, published in 1939, clarifies the creative process and how we can train the mind to formulate ideas. While it does not fully illuminate what is going on below the surface (the mystery of consciousness is still under debate) it was the first straightforward methodology anyone could employ in order to have creative ideas.

James Webb Young started out early in the 20th century in the publishing business which eventually led him into advertising. He achieved great success and helped pioneer an industry that, at the time, was still very conservative. He injected creativity and a touch of controversy and helped prove the direct effect advertising can have on sales.

In the late 1930’s a manager came to James with the insight that success in advertising comes from selling ideas not things, but the problem that they didn’t know exactly how to get ideas. This led him to write A Technique for Producing Ideas.

If you haven’t already I would encourage you to read this book, you don’t even have to be involved in a particularly creative profession to gain benefit from the technique. It can help you discover solutions to any challenges or problems in your life through a different understanding of how the mind formulates.

As summarized in the book here is the technique for producing ideas:

First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which form a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let it all go and something beside the conscious mind does the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the idea – the “Eureka! I have it” stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of this idea to practical usefulness.