Original Thought: Where Do Ideas Come From?

| By Editorial Staff

A stroke of genius. An epiphany. The proverbial lightbulb that flicks on above your head.

Brainstorming session with post it notes on desk

Brainstorming session with post it notes on desk

These are just some of the ways we describe how big ideas come to life. It’s a bit romantic, for example, to think of a man like Sir Isaac Newton going about his day when, alas, an apple falls on his head and – Eureka! – he discovers gravity.

The truth, however, is that every great discovery and innovation throughout history has a longer story of origin than something that happened in an instant.

So where, exactly, do ideas come from?

In a Ted Talk recorded in 2010, Steven Johnson equates an idea to a car. That car is made up of thousands of parts, and while some parts (the engine) appear to play a bigger role than others (a windshield wiper), a car simply wouldn’t be a complete car without every part in place.

The same can be said for an idea.

An idea is a network of neurons that happens to fire in sync with one another inside your brain, in some type of new configuration that has never been formed before.

That begs the question: how can we put our brain into an environment where these new networks are more likely to form?

When it comes to discovering your next big idea, Newton said it best

While others before him have made a similar statement, Newton is credited with the line: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

In other words, Newton wouldn’t have stumbled upon any of his ingenious ideas and discoveries, if not for others before him.

He couldn’t have done it alone.

That’s an interesting concept to accept, since we often see great innovators idolized in statues alone. This constant visual leads us to believe that in order to think like these greats, we have to isolate ourselves from the distractions of others.

But these iconic thinkers are also partly to blame for this misconception. Historically speaking, people aren’t really all that reliable when asked to recount where they come up with their big ideas.

Did George de Mestral really invent Velcro solely based on a hike he took with his dog (where he took note of the burrs that clung to his clothes and wanted to replicate that action commercially)?

In his autobiography, Charles Darwin tells the story of his discover of natural selection. His recollection is one of those classic eureka moments: He was reading Thomas Malthus’ work on population and the concept came to him.

The reality, however, is a bit different. Psychologist Howard Gruber looked over all of Darwin’s notebooks and found that Darwin had a full theory of natural selection for months before that so-called epiphany moment.

In fact, research by Dunbar suggests that breakthrough ideas don’t happen when great thinkers are alone in a lab, looking down through a microscope.

These breakthrough ideas are more likely to occur in noisy conference rooms or gathering spaces, when people share mistakes and brainstorm.

This type of liquid network – as Johnson calls it – is the type of environment that leads to innovation.

In other words, if you have the choice between a coffee shop or your underground lair, go with the coffee shop.

What type of person is more likely to enjoy that stroke of genius?

While great ideas are most likely to occur when we surround ourselves with others, we as individuals still have a role to play.

It’s safe to say we get ideas from within ourselves, as well as from experiences in our surrounding environment. When we engage with our world through preparation, conscious attention, curiosity, effort and serendipity, ideas are born.

  • Preparation: If you want a great idea to come to you, you have to be prepared to receive it. For example, a skillful musician will have ideas that turn into beautiful songs, because that musician prepared and trained himself to make it happen.
  • Attention: You’ve likely heard the phrase necessity is the mother of invention. But it takes someone who’s paying attention to realize that need in the first place.
  • Curiosity: Folks who are okay with the status quo, and are not interested in how things work, will likely struggle to find their aha moment. Great ideas are often born with two simple words. What if …
  • Effort: Ideas are cheap. Execution is hard. In fact, an idea is of little worth until it’s given the attention and commitment needed to take it from the deep recesses of your unconscious mind, to the scrutiny of the marketplace.
  • Serendipity: Luck certainly has something to do with how ideas are born. You have to be at the right place at the right time. But more importantly, you have to have the openness to make connections between unrelated things or events (like an apple and gravity).

The willingness to take risks

Creatives – like writers, painters and musicians – are often asked where they get their ideas. The origin of an idea fascinates us all. Yet while some people are more prone toward so-called big ideas, most of us have had a spark of genius at least once in our lives.

What separates the creative from the, shall we say, not-to-creative, is that willingness to take risks with an idea. To push beyond what’s safe and comfortable to answer that age-old question:

What if …