I go to a lot of events where I am supposed to be on stage asking authors or important people interesting questions and then I am supposed to field interesting questions from the audience. I say “supposed to” because a lot of the suppositions about what will make these occasions enjoyable are wrong. For example: no one is ever supposed to ask the question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” This is considered to be some kind of moronic question to which sarcastic people answer: “I buy them from the ideas shop.” In fact it is an excellent question. Maybe it’s the one question that actually matters.
Generally speaking, though, it is regarded as the height of idiocy for an audience member to ask famous people about where they get their inspiration. Other people in the crowd will snigger at your desperation and pretension if you do this. And if the interviewer asks this question... Well, the ghost of Robin Day will descend from the heavens and strangle you with his bow tie. (For younger readers: Robin Day was like Jeremy Paxman only scarier and frownier and with a spotty bow-tie. Those were the days, people. Those were the days.)
This is a big mistake, though. Ideas are extremely mysterious. We should discuss more openly where they come from. Because if we talked about it more, we might understand the process better and we might have more ideas.
Good ideas come when you are not trying to have a good idea. The best thinking happens when you are not thinking
New research recently reported in the Scientific American suggests that a large proportion of significant, life-changing ideas come from what they call “shower moments”, the thoughts you have while you are in the shower. I am willing to entertain this even though my own shower thoughts are things like: “Why is my conditioner running out faster than my shampoo even though I use more shampoo than conditioner?” and “Who moved my sponge?” (Subtext: no transformational insights but lots of unexpressed anger towards the other people who live in my house.)
This latest study showed that when people were given problems to solve, they were more likely to reach a satisfying answer if their mind was allowed to wander, as it does in the shower. Unless you are me and having a nervous breakdown about toiletry over-use. They were less likely to find a solution or have an idea if they approached a problem methodically or by using analysis, in other words, by over-thinking it. Conclusion? Good ideas come when you are not trying to have a good idea. The best thinking happens when you are not thinking.
Surprise, surprise, this is exactly what comes up when you take a risk, do the supposedly “stupid” thing and ask people who create things where their ideas come from. The novelist Sebastian Faulks talked recently about feeling that he needed to move to Paris for his new book. As you do. He didn’t know why and he didn’t know what he was looking for but he knew that he would know it when he saw it and he had an inkling it was somewhere in Paris.
Now, that is someone who understands that you don’t look for ideas, they look for you. And you had better be in Paris waiting for them. OK, so he has replaced “the shower” with “Paris” here, which is not an option that is accessible to all of us. But you get the gist of it. We may not always have Paris. But most of us have a shower. Now all I need is some French shampoo. And to unmask the sponge thief. Bring on the Nobel Prize-winning ideas.