It's Not A Roadblock, It's A Speedbump

Article posted: July 27th, 2016

Innovator's Block: What to do when the ideas won't flow

Thomas Edison once infamously dismissed the unattainability associated with the idea of genius:

"Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration."

This is an empowering thought for entrepreneurs and innovation pioneers across the world. There is no shortage of perspiration or elbow grease or gumption in the startup world, and countless people are willing to put in the hours. The notion of either being born an ideation genius or not, and the destiny attached to that being hereditary or not, seems appropriately outdated now. Hard-work has proven itself to be a more surefire linchpin to success than genius.

Genius is great to help with innovation. But is it necessary? Clearly not.

Having said that - sometimes, at the moment when you really need that one percent of inspiration, the ideas grind to a frustrating halt. You chew over the problem again and again, but you just can't find that spark of creativity you feel you need to set everything in motion.

So what do you do?

Ideator's block is not permanent, even though it may feel that way at the time

"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

- Gene Fowler

Writers are often experts on creative block, since there's nothing quite as intimidating as a blank page when you're not feeling inspired, especially when you're working alone and don't have a team buzzing around you to encourage you.

Creative blocks also tend to be cyclical. You can't come up with a good idea, so you try to focus, but all you can think about is how blocked you are at that moment. So you’re focused – on exactly the least constructive line of thought!

You're in a feedback loop that only ever produces frustration and self-doubt, but don't give up on yourself. Your heroes have experienced these blocks, eventually working through to the other side. You can do it, too!

Experience in, great ideas out

When you're stuck, you know it's hard to remember how you ever came up with good ideas in the past. Did inspiration just strike you out of nowhere? Was it luck? Or maybe magic?

Of course, it's none of those things. Listen to what one of the most prolific and commercially successful innovators of our time had to say on the subject:

“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. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.”

- Steve Jobs

Sounds simple, right?

Note that Jobs said creative people are "…able to connect experiences they've had." Minds may be likened to idea factories, but every factory – whether figurative or literal - needs raw materials to manufacture an end product out of. Extending that analogy it could be argued that ideas aren’t something materialized out of thin air or happenstance – the more experience an ideator has, the more stimulus and information and market exposure etc – the more raw materials that ideator has to play with and either come up with unrecognizable lumps melded together, or masterpieces. Which category they fall into – that’s entirely subjective, but either way – the raw materials need to be there to get something back out.

Your raw materials can take any form, such as reading, playing around with technology, talking to friends and colleagues, or anything else that inspires you. Often you'll find that inspiration strikes when you're thinking about something else.

The raw materials that make for great ideas

"Less mental clutter means more mental resources available for deep thinking."

- Cal Newport

A tidy desk can lead to a tidy mind, which can make it easier to get your creative juices flowing. Yet what if your mind is the thing that's untidy?

An untidy mind is an increasingly common problem in an age of always-on internet and 24 hour connectivity – across a plethora of ever-present and ever-more intrusive gadgets. It could fairly reasonably be postulated that Thomas Edison may never have invented anything if he was stopping every thirty seconds to check Instagram or reply to emails.

Computer science professor Cal Newport is a major proponent of what he calls "Deep Work," and he has written several books on the topic. According to Newport, all workers in the modern knowledge economy struggle with distraction, to the point where it can seriously impact your ability to succeed in your professional life.

Part of his solution is to take care about what you pay attention to each day. Switch off your iPhone sometimes, or quit social media completely if you're a total addict. Schedule set time for replying to work emails, and be sure to wind down each night. He also recommends the oldest cure for creative block of all: go outside, get some fresh air and take a walk in nature. This is the tried and tested way to clear out those blockages and get the ideas flowing again.

Success isn’t a thing, it’s a habit

A lot of creative workers, especially writers, inventors, ideators and entrepreneurs, have their own habits and rituals to help them get past creative blocks, but almost all of them report one vital thing that makes them successful and others not so successful.


Legendary poet Maya Angelou explains it best:

"What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks 'the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.' And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I'm writing, I write. And then it's as if the muse is convinced that I'm serious and says, 'Okay. Okay. I'll come.'"

Creativity is not really something you can turn on and off like a faucet. You need to spend time researching your field of expertise, you need to carry notebooks around and capture thoughts as they come to you, and you need to put your butt in a chair for a few hours every day and force yourself to work. Too much time thinking about work or the problems of creative block, and not enough time just mucking in, isn’t conducive to doing much except tipping the ideator in question towards hesitation-paralysis.

If you're in the habit of being creative, blocks are not a roadblock – just a speedbump. If the speedbump has diminished your ideation velocity a bit - you can fall back on routine, more inputs (raw materials for your grandiosely named ‘mind factory) and the oldy but goldy of just mucking in. At least until the creative and entrepreneurial gold-flecks start appearing again.


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