Most of us believe that good ideas are the result of some kind of external, divine inspiration. In fact – we say to ourselves – we’re probably better off not thinking too much about innovating because that ground-breaking idea is more likely to strike when we least expect it.
But it’s exactly this kind of misguided thought that leads to frustration and wasted time.
Furthermore, we usually give credit to only one person for an invention. But the notion of a single genius single-handedly coming up with an invention is a myth. Many believe that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but you’ll soon find out that the honour should actually be bestowed upon two lesser-known inventors.
Great ideas aren’t born from divine inspiration but from a build-up of smaller thoughts.Whether visiting an artist’s studio, an inventor’s workshop or a researcher’s lab, people often ask innovator’s the same question: “Where do your ideas come from?”
A well-known origin story of a great idea is that of Isaac Newton and how he devised a theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head. The implication of this story is that great ideas strike those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Unfortunately, this tale is a myth. Epiphanies don’t exist. Great ideas don’t miraculously come to people in a moment of inspiration; they evolve over a lifetime of hard work and personal sacrifice.
The word epiphany contains deeply religious connotations. Originally, it meant that all moments of inspiration came from God. Today, the word is less associated with religion, but the core implication nonetheless remains: when people exclaim that they’ve just had an epiphany, they’re subtly suggesting that they’re not quite sure where the idea came from, and thus couldn’t possibly take full credit for it.
The belief that great ideas exist in a realm beyond our control and come to us in mysterious ways could be a psychological tactic to alleviate guilt and frustration when we’re staring down at a blank sheet of paper, unable to commit any creative idea to it. But such a belief is a distortion of what the creative process actually entails.
Instead of a divine moment of inspiration, most creatives accumulate many small insights over time. Indeed, if you look closely at any great idea, you will see that it’s composed of an infinite number of previous, smaller ideas. For example, it was only after almost four decades of multiple innovations in the realms of networking, electronics and software that Tim Berners-Lee was able to build upon the concept of the internet to create the World Wide Web.
Unlike Newton’s apple, great ideas don’t just fall from trees. To come up with an innovative thought, we need to give it time, which we’ll look at how to do right now.
Relentlessly generate new ideas and give them time to grow into great ones.
Today’s world is all about convenience. Everything nowadays is being sold to us pre-packaged – from meals to holidays, clothes to entertainment. The problem with this convenient consumer culture is that we also expect our new ideas to come conveniently gift-wrapped, which is another myth of innovation.
The belief that good ideas arrive fully formed often stops us from developing them, which forecloses the possibility of those ideas becoming great. When pitching a new idea to, say, a team at work, one of the things innovators often hear is “We’ve already tried that” or “We don’t work like that here.” This is unfortunate as these criticisms nip the possibility of growth in the bud and ignore the fact that new ideas don’t come conveniently ready-made.
New ideas need to be nurtured and developed over time in an encouraging environment. The reason why people engage in this sort of idea-destroying behaviour is simple: they expect perfection right from the beginning. But even automobile inventor Henry Ford didn’t get it right the first time around. Rather, his earlier models were mostly awkward, smelly and inefficient. Thankfully, Ford realized that the future rarely arrives as a finished product and continued developing his cars.
He also realized that innovation is a sloppy process. When it comes to creating a great idea, there’s no exact formula to follow – the secret is simply to have many ideas.
The world’s greatest creative thinkers are known for compulsively coming up with the next new thing. The composer Beethoven obsessively recorded every idea that popped into his head, and even interrupted conversations and walked out in the middle of meals to do so. And novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote and then rewrote dozens of his stories, constantly changing the characters, plots and themes.
Great ideas don’t come quick and easy; they require a lot of hard work. We need to constantly generate new ideas and then tend to them, as well as allow them time to bloom.