What’s the big idea?

In among Frankfurt’s proliferation of new ideas, bustling aisles and shouty messages, you’re probably too busy to read this. Give me a couple of minutes, however, and I might be able to give you back many more. You’re busy, aren’t you? You’re probably busier than you’ve ever been before. Emails, calls, social media, news alerts, Facebook. These are constant interruptions forcing you to chop, change and refocus your attention. On the surface of it, it’s just modern life. We accept it. In a post-industrial world our business lives are creative ones. In the book business our careers are all about ideas and, yes, a lot of execution.

So here’s a question: Where are you, and what are you doing when you get your best ideas? You know, the epiphanies. The ones that inspire you to change things. I’ve been asking this question for 20 years as a journalist, and latterly as an entrepreneur. The results shocked me, so I decided to step outside the creative industries and ask more people. I asked military leaders, politicians, clergy, scientists and other academics. What they told me about the provenance of their ideas staggered me. More often than not, we who work in the creative industries brainstorm with colleagues to come up with ideas. Sure, this process generates some ideas. But the process for the deeply engaging and life-changing ideas seems to be a photo-negative of this. Profound creativity is different.

It doesn’t seem to happen at work. Just about everyone I interviewed for Too Fast to Think said that work was not a place that developed profound insights. They were too distracted, interrupted and just plain busy doing stuff to “be”. There was almost a notion that wasting time is what losers did. One of Einstein’s lesser known quotations is: “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” I think his point was that even when you’re doing nothing, you’re doing something.

Lone rangers

Solitude is important. A lot of people reported that being in the shower or bath (alone), or walking or running was a point of provenance. Clergyman Alasdair Coles laments the loss of urban churches as quiet spaces. He told me that a fundamental aspect of balanced creativity was a recognition of the dual state: people are either receiving or transmitting. He believes the emphasis has shifted decisively to the latter: “They can communicate, but they can’t converse.”

Big ideas can’t be forced. Some of the most profound creatives develop a pact with themselves. They trust that ideas will come. There is writer’s block, of course, but there has to be a recognition that you can’t serve it up like a short-order chef. One of the best ways of idea-generation seems to be to recognise that metaphor is at the heart of it. According to author and futurologist Ray Kurzweil, this sort of pattern recognition is something that sets machines and humans apart. Humans can recognise and apply pattern recognition to great creative effect. Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) was directly influenced by Charles Lyell’s The Principles of Geology (1830). Darwin used the metaphor of gradual geologic change to inspire his own work.

Seeking enlightenment

Everyone has big ideas. Every person I’ve asked about ideas says they have them. It’s a fundamental human condition. These are the things that make us us, but it’s something we don’t teach. Sure, we educate in the subject, but we don’t teach people how to maximise their creativity. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t conform to the Western (reductive) analytical model. We make sense of things by disassembly. Since the Enlightenment, this has served us well, but we face a new challenge. What happens when everyone and everything is connected to everyone and everything else? Our creative model must change to accommodate it. We need to think bigger and better; we must give ourselves more time and more space. If we don’t, we can’t see the bigger picture. We can’t join the dots.

We are taught that greater specialism and qualification in reductive analytic thinking is the key to success. It’s not the profundity, however, that creates success, it’s the parenthesis. The more analytical and conceptual we can be, the more we can tap into our own potential. If we want to reach our creative potential, we must give ourselves more time. Even if it means we do a little less. We need time to think. (Even at a trade show.) So thank you for granting me a little of yours.

Chris Lewis is an author and journalist who founded marketing and communications firm Lewis in 1995. His book, Too Fast to Think, was published this month by Kogan Page.