A Place for Ideas

People ask me, ‘Where’s the best place to think up good ideas?’, hoping that in the answer I might reveal the secret location of a magic glade of ideas where the Fountain of Enlightenment bubbles up from the Spring of Genius.

Of course, there are really almost as many good places as there are ideas to be thought of in them. On first glance it would seem that everybody has their own different, special place, but when we delve deeper into the question we find a few interesting facets to their commonality.

Many people would put it simply that the best ideas come from a peaceful, relaxing environment, perhaps in solitude. Some of the best places for this could be in woodland, in a sauna or in your own specially constructed den. The author Philip Pullman built a shed in his garden in which to write so that he could have peace and quiet and be surrounded by his research. But if the shed was the best place to write why did he write most of his famous trilogy in a cafe in the centre of Oxford?

Perhaps the answer has to do with how the brain works. It requires some form of stimulus and it requires a structure (rules) within which to work.

So what about a library? I’ve spent many hours in libraries not thinking about what I was supposed to be thinking about and not being very productive at all.

Could this be because the stimulus of the Library is so much less than the coffee shop? Less people, no noise, no nice smells. But the library has structure – perhaps too much. Being in an environment with so many rules that consciously need to be adheared to isn’t conducive to a free mind. That’s why children mess about in the places in which they’re most tightly restricted, like giggling at funerals. I feel faint and dizzy in delicate glassware departments in shops, ‘don’t knock the cabinet!’ says the voice in my head. I start to sway as my subconscious interprets the instruction as ‘smash all the expensive things’.

So we need a place that is peaceful (we’re not going to be too disturbed), is stimulating (but not too distracting), is structured (but not regimented). All of these the coffee shop provides. You have structure – a table and chair and a drink and no-one is going to kick you out, push you around or ask you what you’re doing (choose your coffee shop with care).

Don’t overlook the fact that change is sometimes better than a rest – if you work in a busy office you may get your best ideas in a peaceful place but if you work in solitude and silence you may find your genius is unleashed at a crowd of noise.

I know where my magic glade is. But that would be telling. Find your own.

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Thanks for the Memory

A paradigm is a model or example that helps us understand something complex. I want you to consider re-thinking your paradigm of what you believe memory to be. The reason is that memory is the playing field where the game of creativity takes place. Without it you can’t be creative and neither can you know what being creative is. Let me explain.

There are two types of memory, long and short. Short term memory holds data for up to 30 seconds and can only retain it after that by constantly re-entering it. This is why you forget a telephone number just after looking it up (unless you keep saying it).

Long term memory is associations. Nothing can exist in your memory unless it’s connected to a multitude of other things: it’s colour, taste, time, sounds, emotions, history, people, places. You can’t have a thing in memory (a memorand) just floating around, it has to have a place with in the network of associations. But that ‘place’ is not a ‘pigeon hole’. This is the first part of the memory paradigm that we need to re-consider. Our memory does not work like a computer which stores lists of data which can be wiped. The memorands in our memory cannot be wiped, but their associations can be reconfigured.

Now, do you feel you have good or bad memory? Most people assume they have a bad memory, but in fact they don’t. That’s like saying you have a bad hope or a bad electricity in your mains. There is no such thing as good or bad memory – only untrained memory.

If you have ‘forgotten’ something you’ve somehow messed up the process of Recording, Retaining or Retrieving the information. Usually it’s the first one, Recording (you didn’t hear the person’s name) or Retaining (you didn’t put the person’s name with associations into your long term memory) or it could be Retrieving is your weak point (you didn’t store the name with relevant associations so can’t recall it easily, although it is ‘in there’.

Can your memory be full? No, since associations can be infinite. Experts on memory suggest that there is no limit to human memory apart from the paradigm that creates limitations. Memory is a process not a ‘thing’. In fact I would go as far as saying you do not even have a memory, you ‘do’ memory, it’s an activity. Experts have also done experiments that have discovered that supposed long-lost memory is actually still there, just temporarily inaccessible.

Where is your memory? This may start to sound a little metaphysical but hang in there – we assume our memory is in our brains, where we also assume our ‘mind’ to be. Think about this – there is no evidence to suggest this is the case. No really, there isn’t! We surmise it is there, we extrapolate that it’s there, we have a theory that it is there. Have a think for a moment where else it could be. (This is easier if you play a musical instrument – it app ears that your fingers know what to do.) Then think about this: if you smashed your tv during the news, would you assume that the newsreader was dead? No, the broadcast would continue but you wouldn’t be able to receive it, that’s all. It’s just a theory, but no better than the one we have. (If you have proof of where memory is or where the mind actually is you deserve the Nobel prize.)

So how about this for a new paradigm: You have an excellent memory, capable of unlimited storage and fantastic feats of recall and free association from your entire human experience. That’s much, much better. Thanks for the memory!

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Why Would a Locust Watch Star Wars?

This will test your powers of lateral thinking. Claire Rind, at Newcastle University showed Star Wars (Episode IV A New Hope – the original one) to locusts and in doing so won a 2005 Ig Nobel for her efforts.

Now why would she do that? The neuro-circuitry of locusts has been extensively mapped and Dr Rind was trying to track whether the locusts could detect imminent collisions. “We were studying the responses of visual stimuli. We found locusts have dedicated nerve cells specifically to detect collisions,” says Dr Rind. So watching Tie-fighters and X-Wings fighting above the Death Star was just the thing.

But what is the point of it all? The research was part-funded by car-maker Volvo who plan to use the Star Wars research to design an artificial eye for its future cars. Who’d have thought it?

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What Makes a Genius?

When I’m doing my creativity workshops the biggest hurdle to overcome is people’s belief that only certain people can be creative and only certain people can become genii. In fact people believe that certain babies are born genii. Unfortunately for this belief there is no evidence to back it up. There is no evidence that ‘genius’ is genetic. Certain tendencies are genetic but that’s a very different thing. A tendency does not make a genius.

Look at children. They are rubbish at everything. They are no good at maths, they can’t draw properly, they can’t play cricket or football very well and they certainly can’t sing. I’ve even come across people who are shocked at that statement. But it’s obvious! Children are rubbish at everything…. compared to adult standards.

I was the best artist in my primary school. I could draw better than the whole school. But that didn’t make me a creative genius. If you were to look at my drawings from then they look rubbish. Good for an eight year old but appalling by adult standards. For some reason, when I first picked up a pencil I had a ‘tendency’ to be a tiny bit better at it than the other kids. Other kids had a tendency to be a tiny bit better at football than me. I am useless at football today but I’m a better player than the best kid in the school back then.

By having this tendency of being good at drawing and bad at football meant that I focused my attention on improving the thing I got praise for and avoiding the thing I got laughed at for. I knew I was good at art and I knew I was rubbish at football. That type of strong belief is powerful. Whether you think you’re good at something or think you’re bad at something you’re always right.

We all agree Mozart was a genius. His father Leopold was one of Europe’s leading musical teachers and a prolific and successful composer of instrumental music. When Wolfgang was about three years old Leopold gave him intensive musical training, including instruction in clavier, violin, and organ. Wolfgang had learned several pieces at the age of four and started composing at age five. Mozart clearly had a tendency, but not necessarily a ‘talent’ for music. He had a talent for concentration and learning. The environment was right and Mozart got better and better. So was Mozart born a music genius? We’ve no way of knowing. Had another baby been substituted without Leopold knowing would that baby have become a musical genius because of that training? Perhaps.

In the early 1970s in an underground bunker near San Diego, Robert Klark Graham set up a genius sperm bank. He collected samples from donor genii of the day and the women of America could pay up and then conceive a baby with half its DNA coming from a recognised genius. 217 children were conceived in this way. Now how many of those children, now in their 30s, are recognised as genii? The answer is the same amount that you’d find in any random sample of 217 people. Just having DNA isn’t good enough. It may help you to be tall but it won’t make you a basketball player.

Dedication and training is what makes a genius. Einstein said so. Leonardo Da Vinci said so. Since they are the people our society holds up to be genii in the first place we have no option but to believe them. We can all be genii. It’s only our belief that we can’t that prevents us.

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The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Music fans around the world were saddened this month to hear of the death of Sy d Barrett, the founder member of Pink Floyd. The story of his rise to fame, mental breakdown, subsequent disappearance and life as a recluse is well documented, most notably in the excellent book ‘Crazy Diamond’. Why is the world still interested in an artist who burned so brightly for only one brief year and then hardly engaged in anything else again? Pink Floyd went onto even greater success post-Syd, a large portion of their songs are about him, especially on the LPs ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and even ‘The Wall’. On the Pink Floyd greatest hits album, Syd’s material comprises 30% of the CD where in fact he only too part on less than 5% of their musical output.

In 1967, Syd Barrett penned and performed on The Pink Floyd’s first three singles and first album, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (recorded at the same time as the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, in the adjacent room) and then due to mental instability and depression, possibly triggered by copious amounts of recreational drugs, he left the band. Apart from two solo albums produced by his old friend (and Pink Floyd replacement) Dave Gilmore, he would never perform again. It would be like the Beatles having John Lennon leave in 1963 even before ‘She Loves You’ was made. Syd’s story is a story of unrevealed potential.

1967 was the year rock music was born. It was when pop music suddenly wasn’t about boy meets girl anymore. Syd’s music personified the psychedelic revolution that spawned Bowie, T-Rex, heavy rock and even punk. (Both the Sex Pistols and Captain Sensible attempted to track Syd down i n the 70s to produce their albums). Syd’s music was utterly creative with the childish perspective of ‘See Emily Play’, the transvestism of ‘Arnold Layne’ and the science fiction and fairy tale fantasy of ‘Astronomy Domie’ and ‘The Gnome’.

But it’s the clever poetry and ingenious use of creative language that is most unique in his songwriting. How those unusual words fit the melody in a loose kind of tightness or a tight kind of looseness in a way that previously only the greatest Jazz players could do with notes. Syd did it with words and mental pictures. Click here to read the words of ‘Octopus’ from his solo LP, ‘The Madcap Laughs’.

There’s an excellent review here of Syd’s life and music (thanks to Alan Stevens)

“Oh where are you now, pussy willow that smiled on this leaf? When I was alone you promised the stone from your heart. My head kissed the ground, I was half the way down, treading the sand, please lift a hand…. won’t you miss me at all?” from ‘Dark Globe’

And now you know why my name is spelt with a ‘y’.

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The Age of Ideas

Why is creativity so important? Why are larger businesses spending millions on particular types of training and ways of doing business that they wouldn’t have given time of day to less than ten years ago? The answer is that if you do the same thing over and over again, you’ll get the same results over and over again. If you make a million every month, whatever you’re doing, make sure you keep doing it! But if you’re not earning your desired potential, doing the same thing week after week is not going to improve things. That’s one definition of insanity, to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

That brings us back to our definition of creativity from Edward De Bono (who coined the phrase ‘lateral thinking’). He said that creativity was ‘doing something in a better way’ or ‘doing something better’. So if you’re not getting what you want, you need to be creative and improve what you do, or do something else.

There are three threatening and ominous words why being more creative is now essential in modern business. They all begin with the letter A: Abundance, Automation and Asia.

The ‘threat’ from Asia appears to be obvious. They can make stuff cheaper. But that is not where the real threat lies at all. There are millions of highly skilled graduates coming out of China, India and now South America that are all competing in a global market for our jobs. But it’s not call centre jobs that they’re going to take – it’s any job that doesn’t have to be done face to face. That means almost any business service. That means any technological service. That means any skilled or knowledge based job. They are probably more motivated. They are probably better qualified and trained and yes, for now, they are happy to do it cheaper.

Automation used to mean that a car factory worker lost his job to a robot. ‘Well that’s all right’, you say, ‘no robot can replace me’. Well think again. Computer systems are now so complex that within 5 to 10 years a large proportion of knowledge-based workers will be replaced with automated artificial-intelligence computer systems. This means jobs that we once thought were fairly secure: accountants, lawyers, doctors. In the same way that few people now go to a bespoke tailor, in the future few people will go to a bespoke lawyer. The computer system will be cheaper and quicker.

Abundance is the fact that there is so much stuff everywhere. America spends more money on bin bags than half the world spends on everything. That’s one nation spending more on the receptacle for the things they don’t want than 90 countries spend in total.

There is so much choice, there are so may options, so many suppliers, so many variations. There are hundreds if not thousands of people or businesses that do exactly what you do. There used to be a time when a prospective author, actor or musician could send their material off to a production company and it would be read. Not so now. Publishing houses call the mountain of letters that come through their doors every day ‘the slush pile’. Record companies have a much stronger description. It would require a full time dedicated team just to wade through that stuff.

So it doesn’t get done and the genius of tomorrow goes undiscovered. Getting your product noticed on the high street is a similar challenge. If you want to buy a shirt, how can you decide from the thousands available? Price is not a motivator. Think back to when you last bought a pen, a car, a suit, dinner, a drink or a hotel. Did you choose the cheapest? Of course not. So how did you decide? This is why we have seen the rise in the esoteric black art of branding in the last two decades. Branding gets the product ahead. Branding is a creative process – it is holistic, irrational and emotional and completely out of the comfort zones of most logical, rational, linear businesses.

Not long ago, about fifteen years or so, we were told that we were leaving the ‘Industrial Age’ and we were entering the ‘Information Age’. Well the Information Age didn’t last long. In fact it’s all over. We now all have access to the same information. They used to say ‘Information is power’ well it isn’t. Information is potential power. Taking action based on that information is power. We are now in the ‘Conceptual Age’.

The future belongs not to those who know things but to those who do different things, differently. Those who do better things in a better way. Learn to be creative and get ahead. The is the age where creativity is going to be prized higher than all other attributes. This is the Age of Ideas.

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Put Grandma in the Playpen

What would be a realistic but unusual answer to this problem?

Grandma is knitting but her three year old granddaughter keeps playing with the wool. Father suggests putting the child in the playpen. Mother comes up with a better idea – what is it?

Some people suggest taking the child out of the room or telling Grandma to stop knitting. Better than that is to give the child a spare ball of wool. All these solutions are acceptable – but a bit boring, a bit obvious. The point of the exercise is not simply to solve the problem, but to solve it in a realistic but unusual way. A better answer is then to put Grandma in the playpen. Doing that would mean Grandma could carry of knitting without interruption and the child can be in the room with everyone but doesn’t feel imprisoned. It works, it’s simple, but something odd is going on.

Grandmas don’t belong in playpens you cry! That’s a convention yes, but not the law. There’s nothing to say we can’t do it. The point of this problem and the solution is that there are many answers to the problems in your life and in your business. Most are obvious – they are the ones your competition have already thought of. You cannot afford to be obvious.

So when you have a problem and you need a solution don’t be concerned with convention. Don’t be concerned with what’s expected. Don’t be concerned with what people will think. Don’t even be concerned with what’s possible. If you put constraints like these on your ideas or if you judge your ideas during th e brainstorming phase you might was well give up and join the legion of mediocrity because these things will prevent you from having the best ideas at best, but will more than likely totally kill the process at worst.

Working out what is actually possible and allowed is done later, in the planning phase, not in the creative ideas phase. Learn to play, to make new associations, swap things around, wonder, be silly, experiment. These are the attributes that will enable you to solve the problem with a unique solution and to think of that elusive winning idea.

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Laterally Thinking

Lateral Thinking, Blue Sky, Out of the Box – we hear these phrases bandied about but what does it all really mean? The term ‘Lateral thinking’ was first coined by Edward De Bono who described it as the process to achieve pattern switching from one way of thinking to another. Ok, but what does that mean and why should we care?

All thinking is an associating process. We think of one tho ught and that leads to another thought and that leads to another and so on. If you could be bothered you could trace your line of thought back throughout the day and you’d see that you live in a continuous associative stream of consciousness.

Playing ‘word association’ is easy – if we had a room of people and I said apple, the next person may say tree, the next could be woodland… etc. It’s very easy because that is how the mind works. If we were to play ‘word disassociation’, we’d find it a lot harder. The only way to do it is to associate to something else to get away from the word. It’s like our mind has rail tracks on which our thoughts travel. We’re essentially heading in a set direction which, like a train, is hard to deviate from without crashing.

This is why so many people do exactly the same things, say exactly the same things and come up with exactly the same solutions when faced with a problem. They don’t have any new ideas because they’re travell ing on the same straight tracks as they always have.

So when we talk about lateral thinking or pattern changing we’re essentially talking about jumping off the tracks onto another railway line that is going in a different direction. This is only possible if the rail network of neurones (brain cells) in your brain is a complex network of intersections instead of a set of parallel tracks.

Einstein’s brain is stored in a jar in Kansas City. It has been studied by many experts for decades. It is by all accounts a very average male brain, the same weight and size as most. But it differs from the average in one important respect. When samples were studied under the microscope it was noticed that the neurones had dramatically more connections to each other than in the average brain.

So how do you form these connections? Like a muscle, the brain needs to be exercised. To make new connections you need to make new associations between disparate things . You need to fantasise, experiment. Force yourself to change habits of action, speech and thought. Do things differently. Do different things. Connect the new experience back to something you’ve done before. Learn to disassociate! Break out of that pattern of thinking by being random. Play!

Here’s a lateral thinking task to end with. What would be a realistic but unusual answer to this problem?

Grandma is knitting but her three year old granddaughter keeps playing with the wool. Father suggests putting the child in the playpen. Mother comes up with a better idea – what is it?

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