This is the third and final episode in the series all about inspiration. Here I will share with you my thoughts on the topic of inspiration, marrying my experiences with others’ research. I believe that connecting to inspiration more often and more easily (in other words, controlling the uncontrollable) can be achieved through a set of tools. This episode will include a framework I felt inspired to create all about how to help attract inspiration when you need it most. During our live class, students kindly embraced my eccentricity, workshopping the framework in which you’ll hear about soon.
Welcome back to class.
Inspiration is a mysterious, elusive and perhaps even divine interconnectedness between everyone and everything. Communication, both through talking and listening, is a gateway for inspiration. When we explain concepts to others it can help clarify our own ideas and facilitate connections in our own minds, as well as in the minds of others. Working in an interdisciplinary team requires coming up with new ideas all the time and supporting the creative process of one another, part of which is encouraging inspiration. Innovation happens when curiosity meets inspiration meets grit. Ultimately, inspiration is an important step in the process of innovating.
But first, let’s talk about a common misconception when it comes to inspiration: the lightbulb ‘a-ha!’ moment.
A flash of insight. A lightning strike of brilliance. That one moment that defines or redefines a person, place or thing. It arrives in an instant and often we have no idea the source.
While it may feel like it happens all of a sudden in the moment, inspired ideas don’t really happen like that. They often take much longer to incubate and materialize and there are invisible idea sources that build and finally connect to make the lightbulb turn on. We often fail to recognize the system behind the moment of inspiration and all of the hard work and people and places that have gone into the ‘a-ha’, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Please close your eyes.
Visualize a light bulb inside of a lamp that’s plugged into a wall. With the flick of a switch, the light turns on. The lightbulb moment, if you will.
But what we can’t see is the wiring behind the wall. The interconnected series of networks that join the outlet and the switch. Furthermore, we often don’t recognize that the system goes far beyond what’s inside the walls; traveling outside to an entire network of grids that power our homes, feeding the wires and ultimately allowing the lightbulb to illuminate in a way that seems like magic.
You can open your eyes.
Much like our lightbulb example, I believe that there are invisible forces that help see our inspired ideas through to cognition. Here’s the way I like to think about the backbone of the inspiration network, made up of three parts:
Nodes of knowledge Imagine a series of dots on a page. The dots are spread out, in no particular pattern or order. These ‘nodes of knowledge’ represent the diverse range of experiences, spaces, people, topics that you’ve come to learn about and experience. We’re collecting unique nodes of knowledge all the time and the more we can remain open to new ideas and new ways of thinking, we can keep all of these nodes active and in play. In his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, author David Epstein explains that “...breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity.” Varied experiences, varied opportunities and varied skill sets can cross-pollinate in new and unexpected ways. While I used to see my ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ self at a disadvantage to other, more specialized humans walking alongside me, I now know and appreciate the way that this breadth of knowledge has served me and continues to fuel my creativity. With many nodes of knowledge, there starts to become…
Intersections of inspiration Imagine that some of these dots now have lines connecting them to one another. Ideas begin to form when we can remix and reorganize existing ideas, experiences and patterns of knowledge. Steve Jobs once said: "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. Unfortunately, that's too rare a commodity. A lot of people haven't had very diverse experiences. So they don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions." In her book, Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving, author and journalist Celeste Headlee describes the ‘default mode network’ as a place in our brains that allows us to connect seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas, activated in moments when we’re not asking our brain to do a specific task. In other words, moments of downtime, rest and boredom. The default mode network is “... the part of the brain that sorts through all the new information we’ve received recently and tries to put it into context with what we already know. The default network is integral to learning, insight and imagination. If our minds never come to rest, there is never an opportunity to wander in new directions.” The default mode network is particularly engaged when our bodies are in motion but our brains aren’t. This is why many great moments have been reported when walking, driving, showering and working with our hands. I have found this to be very true for myself that when I’m moving but my brain doesn’t have to think too hard, intersections of inspiration are a-plenty. In fact, if I’m ever stuck on a problem or have some sort of creative block, I simply stop what I’m doing and go for a walk. The dog gets stimulation and so do I. It’s often only a few minutes into a walk before an intersection of inspiration makes itself known to me. Shout out to the default mode network! Finally, when nodes of knowledge supply, anchor and connect our intersections of inspiration. Over time, these turn into...
Webs of wisdom One novel idea begets another novel idea, building and intersecting and building and intersecting. Webs of wisdom – true innovation – begin to form through experience and insights over time. To establish an analogy within an analogy (bear with me) your imagination is like a bank. Investing ideas (through experiences, formal and informal learning opportunities and communicating with others) will be the most fruitful if you start early and invest often, consistently over time, interest compounding along the way. Your ideas start building on each other – often unconsciously – working in the background for you. Invest a little time and energy and curiosity and if you do that often enough and for long enough, you’ll end up with a fortune.
To illustrate the weaving, non-linear, exciting ride that inspiration can take us on, connecting nodes of knowledge into intersections of inspiration, here’s a glimpse into my head. Specifically, here’s the ideation and inspiration process that I traveled through to arrive at the information contained in this class.
I watched a TEDx talk about ‘The Art of Creative Inspiration’ by Victor Shamas that was one of the recommended viewings for students to prepare for this week’s class. Within the first few seconds he talked about the idea of the creative process and getting into a state of creativity. This immediately made me think of the concept of ‘flow’ popularized by the Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I thought about it for a while longer and I remembered the creativity framework that we explore later in this course about divergent, emergent and convergent ideas. I then connected this to another framework that I’ve been refining – nodes of knowledge, intersections of inspiration and webs of wisdom – that was remixed from various other sources in my learning. So this got me thinking about how the concepts of flow and creativity frameworks I discussed above are layered underneath our experiences of inspiration. As momentum picked up speed, I had more questions then I had answers and this is how I knew I was onto something. I don’t plan on finding out all of these answers, as for every answer I will probably have five more questions. But that’s what keeps me interested and engaged and ultimately helps fuel my curiosity, resulting in inspiration.
All of this was activated by the default mode network and came to me as I was driving. Needless to say, I pulled over, used my phone’s dictation abilities to get into words as fast as I could and here we are. Inspiration about inspiration, inspired by a variety of inspired moments. Oof (but also I love it).
The ACE Framework
I believe that connecting to inspiration more often and more easily can be achieved through a set of tools; a framework I created to help attract inspiration when you need it most. Creativity – and entering into a space that fuels creativity – is a muscle to be flexed and strengthened versus innate know-how we’re born with. It’s nurture versus nature. So while I’m not suggesting we, as humans, are in total control of this mysterious thing called ‘inspiration’, I am suggesting that there are ways that we can align ourselves with it to hopefully entice it to come play with us.
In her incredible book about brave creative living entitled Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, author Elizabeth Gilbert presents her thoughts on where ideas come from. She firmly believes (and I tend to agree) that ideas are energetic life forces in and of themselves and are only willing to engage with us if we’re open to engaging with them right back.
She says this: “I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you, but if you are not ready or available it may, indeed, choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator… Don’t fret about the irrationality and unpredictability of all this strangeness. Give into it. Such is the bizarre, unearthly contract of creative living. There is no theft. There is no ownership. There is no tragedy. There is no problem. There is no time or space where inspiration comes from and also competition, no ego, no limitations. There is only the stubbornness of the idea itself, refusing to stop searching until it finds an equally stubborn collaborator.”
Stubbornly latched onto this idea of being inspired by inspiration, I’ve developed a series of jumping-off points for inspiration to come and play.
My framework is all about ‘ACE-ing’ it, which should not be confused with achieving an A-grade or doing something perfectly. Instead it’s about welcoming inspiration to the sandbox through embrace, pace, place, space, interface and chase. Working through this framework with a friend, family member or colleague may prove to reap additional rewards, especially in the latter part of the process. These six ‘ACE’ tools can all be used together or be used independently from one another. Let’s dive in…
“Accept or support willingly or enthusiastically”; Yes, And…; open to new ideas and ways of thinking putting your ego aside
Physically putting egos down; Yes, Let’s
Adjusting your normal speed of work, play, moving through the day; ‘emptying thoughts’ through play; ‘filling back up’ through open stillness (a framework provided by Dr. Victor Shamas)
Send a Sound (speed up); 2-min stillness (slow down)
Changing physical locations; size; contained or open-air; contains objects and/or people different from your routine
7 floors of campus building, focusing on analog/non-digital
How you physically exist in and/or experience a place; high/low; centre/wall; right-side-up/upside-down
7 floors of campus building, experiencing them in different ways
Communicate with people different than you; cross-disciplinary
Back in regular classroom + discuss moments of inspiration, building on each others’ (1+1 = 3)
Inspiration ebbs and flows; when you’ve got it, hold onto that moment; state of Flow
There you have it. A new, potentially idea-attracting portal through which to open up the communication lines between you and inspiration. Embrace, pace, place, space, interface, chase. So what are you waiting for? Your next great idea? Good, because it’s waiting for you too.
Sound Effects (public domain via Freesound):
Kids Playing on the School Yard by caquet
Cartoon Wink Magic Sparkle by MLaudio
Cha Ching by creek23
Crystal Twinkle by LaurenPonder
Lightning Strikes by artifact
Gates of Heaven Music by TheoTer
Switch pressing button click by EricsSoundschmiede
Electricity by jeremysykes
Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle