Where do ideas come from?

Originally written on April 22, 2015.

Ever wondered how the animated movie, Toy Story 2 & music producer, Don Jazzy are connected? No? How about what Lagos Taxis & oil magnate, John Rockefeller have in common?

I live in constant fear that one day, when I need it most, my creative tap will run dry, and I’ll finally be exposed for the fraud that I am. Hence, I’ve been pondering lately about where ideas come from - because I know that if we can identify the source, we can then begin to optimise the idea generation process.

Then, I remembered a law I learnt in High School Physics — The Law of Conservation of Energy, “total energy entering a system = total energy exiting a system”. In simpler words, “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but can be converted from one form to another”. Relating that concept to idea generation, we quickly discern that ideas cannot be created, but can only be synthesised by combining concepts from various, sometimes unrelated fields to birth something fresh.

I consider myself an illiterate of sorts, for one who’s best known for the convoluted things I can do with sound, seeing as I have little or no formal musical education. I manage to turn what’s supposed to be my greatest handicap, into an advantage over my classically trained colleagues. My training — or the lack of it — allows me to assume different points of view & make connections where they may not normally be seen, when solving a musical problem. The fact that my mind hasn’t been conditioned to think a certain way about musical notes or instruments — or anything, for that matter — has afforded me the ‘foolishness’ to abuse certain sacred principles. To attempt to redefine what’s acceptable as ‘music’.

It may seem absurd to a strictly tutored musician, for example, to play an acoustic guitar with a violin bow, as I did on a recent project, or record the different hands of my wall clock to use as a leitmotif in a short film named ‘Timeless’, or using my own vocal recordings to build a playable software instrument in Ableton Live.

My point is, to survive & maybe someday thrive as a creative in this field, my lack of musical tutoring has forced me to lean heavily on other (sometimes non-musical) elements to elicit an emotional response from my audience. This means I cannot have any “happy accidents”, where my fingers just ‘find’ the right notes, and I have to make calculated decisions about little things that some others may take for granted.

I’ve been asked repeatedly, why I’ve chosen so far, not to learn to play the piano. My answer is the same every time: I see music as a language, and of course you cannot tell stories in any language without having a firm grasp of its technicalities & inconsistencies. But like any writer in any language, I believe my focus should be to tell my stories in the most inventive way possible. Not fidget endlessly over lexicon and structure, as I’ve seen some of my more musical colleagues do, when they spend time worrying about things like harmonic shifts and dominant seventh chords and cadences and all those other big words I don’t understand.

After all, we’ve all been gifted the same 12 notes and what sets us apart really, is our abilities to take those notes and enter into realms never explored by our counterparts. That, I believe should be the focus of any creative, looking to make an indelible mark on the sands of time.

Of course, I may be wrong.

I once read in a book titled The Art of Creativity (and I paraphrase), that creativity is an ability to look where others have looked and make connections they cannot see. To better myself in this capacity, and not necessarily just musically, I frequently try to find connections between seemingly unrelated entities, progressively reducing the number of steps allowed between the two entities.

For example, let’s for a minute think about the movie Toy Story 2 — one of the highlights of my earlier years. One can only wonder who made such a wonderful film. I did wonder once, and I found it was made by Pixar. Who started Pixar? Steve Jobs. What else can we associate Steve Jobs with? Apple Inc. But that’s far too overt, so let’s take his last name instead — Jobs. What’s the one thing you make sure you have when hunting for ‘Jobs’? You could take a gun or a machete, but for most desirable results, you may want to have a copy of your CV. CV — Curriculum Vitae was the name of an album by the now defunct pop music group named (you guessed it) Mo’Hits. Who was at the helm of affairs at Mo’Hits?

That’s right, DON JAZZY. Good job.

As rudimentary as the concept may seem, it’s been a great positive catalyst for my growth as a creative professional in the many pools I’ve been lucky enough to stick my toes in. This faux-polymathy allows me to think like an electrical engineer when solving a tough musical problem, think like a baker when solving a programming problem, etc.

Let’s have another go, off the top of my head. First word that comes to mind is Taxi. What colour is usually associated with Taxis? Yellow. Yellow can easily be morphed into “Y’hello” one of the former ad-campaign slogans of the telecom company, MTN. When I think of MTN, as with all Nigerian ISPs, I think of their snail-like internet speeds. Snails. What’s the most distinguishing feature snails possess? Shells. Shell is a well known oil company, as is Exxon Mobil, both of which were birthed from the dissolution of Standard Oil, then owned by (you guessed it) John D. Rockefeller.

You know how I know I’m right? Some of the most earth shattering inventions ever made are said to be “accidental”, but the truth is, if these inventors hadn’t done enough — learnt enough — to recognise and take advantage of the opportunity when it was presented before them, they (like everyone else) would have glossed over it all, and the world might have been a very different place to live in.

The airplane was only invented because two brothers were able to make a connection between human transportation & avian flight — a purely biological phenomenon.

Same with Alexander Graham Bell, a professor of Vocal Physiology & the ‘accidental’ invention of the modern telephone.

As with Alexander Fleming and his discovery of the antibiotic, Penicillin when looking for ways to destroy bacteria.

As with Newton’s third law & its use in rocket propulsion.

I could go on indefinitely.

Therefore, becoming more inventive, productive professionals in our chosen fields demands that we sometimes view the task before us from the vantage point of an unrelated field. Of course, we cannot assume these positions without having at least some knowledge about the field’s inner workings. To gain all this knowledge in the first place, we need to disenthrall ourselves from the ideology that learning stops the second you’re handed your degree, and are therefore pronounced “educated”.

An adult mind of average cognitive ability that manages to retain its child-like curiosity will stand out as genius in whatever room he/she walks into. Not because he/she is smarter than anyone else, but because they’ve spent time reading material far beyond the scope of their fields.

Take this as a challenge, to ensure that you learn something substantial everyday, whether by reading, listening to audio books etc. on whatever subject matter you wish — seriously, anything — and I promise, you will realise that you’ve become a better version of yourself, and if not, at least you’ll have found out that my methods may not work for you.