The Art of Having No Idea

How to get into the open state needed for creative thinking

’Am I being creative yet’?

Most of my ideas never see reality. My brain moves a thousand times faster than my body, burping out new concepts that seem brilliant to me all the time, but without any of the boring detail required to make them happen.

Bringing these projects to fruition requires patience and determination. Luckily I am blessed with a longing the size of Manhattan to be creative — to pull stuff from inside me and put it out there into the world.

That’s my way of thinking about what creative people do when it’s going well: pulling stuff from the inside to the outside.

Not to say that what comes out is all about them — it seems to me that what a creative does is tap into something much bigger, something shared but invisible or unspoken — that’s floating around in everyone’s consciousness waiting to be said or seen, but that most people overlook.

This is what stand-up comedians do; brilliant strategists; good artists; genius physicists; even horrible politicians — they call something out that’s just on the edge of acceptability but not quite there yet — and that is energizing; not necessarily good, but definitely mobilizing. It gets things moving.

Anyone who puts anything new in the world is plucking a fruit from the invisible zeitgeist tree and putting it into the basket of ideas for us all to eat.

For a while it is challenging or controversial (Copernicus, Picasso, DH Lawrence); but eventually that raw, exciting kumquat becomes supermarket food and we all get used to it. We integrate it into our way of thinking and it becomes normal.

This is what happens to every new idea: it gets integrated into daily life and starts to become dense and old like everything else. But for a while it carries all the energy of the unknown. That’s what creativity is — it comes from somewhere else that we don’t know about. A place you can’t think your way to.

And I know this because when I sit at my desk trying to be creative, thinking about what to do next — I just get more and more frustrated until I find myself in a tiny hole where everything is dark and I can hear my voice echoing off the sides of my empty tea cup saying “I’ll get there! I’ll get there!” and nothing else. It never does get anywhere. So instead I have to find ways to forget about myself, and then at some point, unpredictably, something good happens.

This paradox is what lies at the heart of all creative work, all innovation and all value that is ever created. At some point you have to accept that you have no idea. Then something may arrive.

This constraint isn’t limited to artists, inventors or innovation teams — it is something we all need to master. It’s what we need to get good at in order to create the better world that we all deserve to live in. But it can’t be faked or rushed. It’s like learning how to crawl again, when we’ve been pretending we can walk or even run for years.

Learning how to crawl is a good way of describing where I am personally in this journey of creativity. I am starting to get it. I have these fleeting, vivid moments of insight that lead to possible action. But it’s a very different thing from what I normally experience as an ‘idea’. An idea is clearly a thought, whereas this other thing is more like a vision or sense of knowing that pops into my head.

When people talk about Sergey Brin waking up one day with the algorithm for Google or Newton discovering gravity, I am sure they are talking about the same thing. At certain moments in the day, I get a little inkling, a flash of what I want to do.

It happens when I am about to cook dinner. If I turn my mind to what to make and I think about the ingredients we have in the fridge, sometimes a little picture arrives in my head — an image of what I’d like to cook. It isn’t complicated, and it is always clear. I know exactly what I want to do, with what bits and pieces and which herbs. This is based on absolutely no cookery competence — it’s something beyond myself.

And if someone suggests another idea, I’m open to it, but underneath I already know what’s going to happen — the dinner I imagined is going to come into being: because it wants to make itself; because it’s already there.

This is what being creative means to me… to pick up on something that’s already ready to happen — and help it to find a way. When it works it’s an effortless experience. It may sound abstract or philosophical, but in reality it is practical and real. It works with people as well as recipes: When I coach people or groups who are stuck on some problem, at some point the way forward wants to make itself known, and it arrives when the group is ready. It comes when they have moved beyond worrying or thinking about the problem and are enjoying playing around with ideas.

This experience has been given many names — it’s been called the ‘unconscious’ by some, ‘group mind’ by others. What’s important is when you begin to experience it yourself, in real life.

The interesting thing is — I haven’t always been able to do it. It is a new skill; or rather, it seems like a new skill, maybe because I simply didn’t notice it before. Like the feelings of anger, bitterness and hurt experienced by a child and then suppressed long into adulthood, our bodies and souls are full of submerged awareness; perceptions that are locked away until we start to notice them — for worse and for better.

So here are my three tips for inviting that creative state:

1. Learn to have no idea

The only way I’ve found that works consistently to generate an idea is to have no idea. This is harder than it sounds because we are so used to having a picture of what we are doing. In any given situation most people think they know what is happening and what they should and shouldn’t be doing (even if they don’t like it).

The result is stuckness, as they haven’t allowed enough space for a new idea. Remember — new ideas don’t come from you. The way around this is to stop, sit back and let your mind run idle. The brain is like a muscle — sometimes it needs to be relaxed.

If you can relax your brain from thinking, even if it’s for a few seconds, then you will immediately be opening it up for new possibilities.

2. Undistract yourself

To bring something new into the world, you have to learn to strip away the things you use to distract yourself. We all have treats and stimulants we use to fire us up when we’re bored or tired (caffeine, adrenaline, chocolate) — or to fill space when we feel agitated (shopping, TV, Facebook).

The downside of these things is that they fill the space that your brain needs to receive new ideas from the Great Unknown.

So undistract yourself. Experiment with curtailing your addictions, even for one day at a time. And see how it goes.

3. If you’re not enjoying it, stop

The guiding star of all true creatives, and all children — don’t persist in doing shit you don’t feel like. How often have you convinced yourself to push through or finish a task you started, even when you’re feeling tense and stressed in your body?

What outcome might have been possible if you had stopped for a moment and opened up to another approach or solution?

Stopping is where it all starts. It doesn’t mean you can’t return to the task, only that something in your attitude could relax to let in more perspective. This is all it takes, and it’s a practice that is key to anyone whose bread and butter relies on them responding effectively in the moment, or collaborating closely with others. Which is basically everyone.

We all need to be creative so that we can make a world that’s fit to live in. So why not start now?

Laurence Shorter is author of The Lazy Guru’s Guide to Life (2016, Hachette Books) and The Optimist: One Man’s Search for the Brighter Side of Life (2009, Canongate). He lives in Sussex with his partner and son.
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