'Inspiration is 80% Mental, 40% Physical': Your Secrets of Creativity

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Earlier this week, I asked Atlantic readers to share how they come up with their best ideas. The feedback was excellent: readers shared responses long and short through our comment section and on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. As we suspected, inspiration takes many forms, and everyone has their own particular process for spurring on creativity and inspiration. Below, a sampling of longer responses from our readers.

Inspiration Is "Something Of An Ongoing Disaster"

I struggle with consistency. I think that's the best way to put it, and it makes talking about "inspiration" almost a laughable endeavor because I don't feel, I never feel, as if I have enough data points in any given field to make generalizations about where I get inspiration or even what I am inspired to do. I jump back and forth between writing a book to watercoloring to linoleum prints to short stories to blog articles; I work on them in the morning and late and night and at home and outside and in coffee shops; I break and re-arrange my "creative time" again and again to fit around my family and the weather and what kind of mood I am in. The last short story I finished was inspired by a DC comic series I found by way of feminist blog, and it was unusual in that I could pinpoint with some clarity where and when the idea developed.

The story before that was more typical, in that I could list you some influences but not which one was the most important or how they fit together - reading Lord of the Rings as a seventh grader, mentally exploring the Mines of Moria again and again, dreaming not of being one of the Fellowship but instead an orc that could descend like an impervious insect into rock-hidden places; turning corners with neck outstretched in Salamanca as a recent college grad, nervy and terrified by a recent mugging but still desperate to love the gold stones and dry air; babysitting a family friend's three-year-old son and having long and puzzling conversations during which neither of us was quite sure we were understood by the other.

I sketch a lot, and I do watercolors outside, and I take photos. These images (of nearby hills, of houses I have lived in, of streets I have walked down) show up in my dreams, and I reinterpret the reinterpreted. I spend a lot of time trying to make stories that create some sort of sense or resolution from terrible things I read in the news; many of the inner worlds that I write about come from asking the question, "In what kind of world would this terrible thing never happen?" I read books and I try to include authors I hate. I spend a lot of time on the internet researching architecture and design and social justice and other topics that don't have any connection to my everyday life. I look at hundreds of pictures every day.

I suppose it would accurate to say that I subscribe to the jumble-box theory of inspiration: if you only absorb enough media, introduce enough diversity of shards of ideas into your brain, they will eventually smash all together and you will develop a original(ish) and authentic language of your own, mosaic of bright and sometimes indistinguishable pieces.


"All You Can Do is Swim in the Problem Until Your Subconscious Finally Forges a Solution."

I work for an engineering firm that produces wireless products. As engineers, we're tasked with producing new things with a minimum of new ideas. The latter restriction makes for safer design and brings things to market quickly and efficiently. Even with that limitation, there's still a place for innovation in this process. That's the exciting part and every engineer lives to find simple, elegant solutions to difficult problems.

 Many of us take our lead from Thomas Edison and his well-quoted "genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration" line. We've learned that the 99% perspiration requirement seems to be essential to any creative solution. All my engineering associates said the same thing - you have to totally and painfully immerse yourself in a problem long before a solution becomes obvious.

That immersion process rarely provides an answer by itself - few of us sit at our desks and pound our way to a creative solution through sheer perseverance. It's only by living with the problem day in and day out that allows you to accumulate the bits and pieces that you'll ultimately need to find a solution. Only after repeatedly soaking in the problem will you have enough insight to be able to solve it.

Once all that juice is stored up, you are at least prepared for those random moments when inspiration does strike. Inspiration comes to engineers like it comes to everyone else - in the shower, while taking a walk, in dreamland - some time when you aren't actively thinking of the problem.

As far as I can tell the inspiration part of the process can't be forced. All you can do is swim in the problem until your subconscious finally joins the disparate pieces together and forges a solution. Conversely, just expecting inspiration to come into play without the necessary work up front doesn't seem to work very well either. There seems to be no way around Edison's perspiration edict.  

There's probably no new insight here but at least it's useful to put the process into words.  


"I Am Agog With The Power of Serendipity"

I am agog with the power of serendipity.

Serendipity, the happy accident, has driven much of my research and much of my publication. My first book, on the work of police officers and social workers, emerged entirely because a student of mine was a police officer--a sergeant, in fact--who invited me for a ride-a-long one night. In time, after many rides and much observation, I hit on the notion that on the scene, at the spot of an incident that a police officer was working, it is best to consider the police officer in exactly the same terms that we analyze small group leaders: as people exercising power and discretion to achieve some socially approved end. In fact, I can still place myself in the exact spot I was in when this idea hit me: riding in a police car at 2 am one morning, driving under the overpass of a yet-unfinished interstate. It was a "Eureka" moment.

A later book, on the American militia movement, was informed by the entirely happy accident (at least for me) that I moved to Spokane, WA, to take a temporary position at Eastern Washington University at the exact moment that the Randy Weaver standoff took place in neighboring Idaho. My surprise at the sympathy with which Randy Weaver was treated in the local media led me to ask that most important of political questions: why do people like something I find abhorrent? Answering that question took several years and a survey of the militia movement from Ruby Ridge to Homeland Security ... but I got to an answer that, at least, satisfied me.

Of course, as Ben Hogan once said of golf, it might be a game of luck but the more I practice the luckier I get. It is one thing to be hit by serendipity and another to be ready for it. An open mind, a big reading list, and a curiosity about the world around me has, I think, put me in a position such that when those serendipitous moments come, I am at least partially prepared to be struck by them.

Then comes the hardest part: making the words come out in a way that makes the thoughts in my head correspond with the squiggles on the page. Which takes a whole lot more inspiration and, indeed, a heck of a lot of mental perspiration.


"Inspiration is 80% Mental, 40% Physical"

Football is 80 percent mental and 40 percent physical.

-Steve Emtman, former NFL defensive lineman, Little Giants

Like many mid to late 20 somethings, I learned most of my life lessons from two sports films: The Sandlot andLittle Giants. I was 9 years old when former overall first pick Steve Emtman hopped off John Madden's bus to inspire the Little Giants before they took to the field against the Little Cowboys. Even though I knew Emtman never mastered the principle of addition, his sincerity in delivering his signature line left a lasting impression.

At 27 years old, I spend most of my time thinking about how to persuade people to read and engage online content, be it a tweet or a piece of longform journalism. My best ideas are 80% mental and 40% physical. Well, roughly at least. My 9 year old self was much better at arithmetic.

40% Physical

It is not easy to be in a proper physical state. Leaving the office for a leisurely walk outside isn't enough. When I am struggling to define a problem or am unable to draft a complete answer, I need to wear myself down. For example, I'll run 5 to 6 miles and then attempt to 3 to 4 sets of push-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups. This is how I clear my head. I am usually juggling multiple thoughts at once and the best way to prepare myself mentally is to exhaust myself physically. 

Exercise is relaxing, but it can be debilitating if I forget to stretch. I never took to yoga, but I am a fan of spending 20 minutes tugging at my ankles or pulling an elbow. Time permitting, a hot shower can help, but I rarely have a eureka moment in the shower. Showers are more likely to echo shards of previous ideas. I use this time to take a mental nap since I'm functionally on autopilot.

80% Mental

20% pressure + 30% existing knowledge + 10% connecting the dots + 20% feedback = 80% mental.

Eureka moments do not occur in a vacuum. My trigger is pressure. Deadlines motivate. With the threat of impending failure, I think about what I already know and what currently fascinates me. The more I already know, the better caliber ideas I generate. An array of datapoints -- anecdotal or statistical -- builds the foundation for an idea. If you don't know anything about a subject, chances are you won't think of a great idea. Life isn't Good Will Hunting where strangers stroll into a classroom and complete complex equations.

Do not silo your brain. I find myself at my most creative when I am connecting disparate things. How should I connect this blog post about reality television with a Congressional Budget Office white paper on home foreclosures? I am envious of designers who draw inspiration from a variety of sources: photography, textile patterns, medieval architecture, 1990s Geocities sites and the like. Inspiration needs room to breathe. I create this space by combining what I am working on with what I like. 
For example, if I was tasked with doubling the number of viewers for this blog post about creativity, I would survey my existing knowledge base about promoting digital content in light of where I currently enjoy spending my time. Right now, I'm fascinated by The Verge (tech website), Buzzfeed Politics, the Q&A network Quora, The Atlantic Wire's media diets, SBNation's YouTube channel, Byliner's longform publications, the comedy podcast network Earwolf, Storifies compiled by The New York Times' Brian Stelter, Google's magazine Think Quarterly, the music sharing site ThisIsMyJam and a few others.

Using pen and paper or a whiteboard, I'll map out what I know with what I like. This process generates workable to occasionally great ideas. Sometimes I'll use mind maps. Sometimes I'll write lists. It depends on my mood and the subject matter. It is more important to put forward ideas instead of fretting about the best process to organize thought. Do what comes naturally.

I'll share these ideas with co-workers, friends, strangers on Twitter and anyone else I think who would be helpful and/or interested. My eureka moment is most likely to occur when I'm defending an idea and someone's comment reveals that last kernel necessary to complete my thought. Or at least I've convinced myself I posses the right question or answer. 

The dirty secret to inspiration is that it great ideas are never complete. Figuring out a solution superior to your previous answer is exhilarating, but it is foolish to think this is the best possible idea imaginable. Pressure is essential to acceptance. It is dangerous to endlessly pursue what we think is genius at the expense of great. I admire the hacker ethic because what society commonly hails as genius is most likely an iteration of a series of good ideas.

The 120% Ethic

Do not take the previous as an excuse to settle for a half baked idea. Deadlines do not justify bad work. The "Emtman equation" is actually kind of beautiful in a cheesy inspirational halftime speech sort of way. Inspiration is tied to effort. Sitting on the couch playing video games will more often than not, fail to produce good ideas, let alone great ideas, on its own. Relaxing is important. Clearing one's mind is critical. Refusing to put in the effort and expecting genius only works in the movies.


"Creativity Is A Social Phenomenon"

My best ideas come through communicating with others. For me, creativity is a social phenomenon.

I spend a good deal of my time honing my thoughts (alone) - thinking, reading, observing. The goal of this is to clearly define logical relationships between events, which is really just the concept of causality (cause and effect).

The real creative side comes about though social interaction. Interaction required individual thought to be restructured, so that another can clearly understand your conscience. This restructuring process produces a more clear and often enhanced version of the original logical relationships. This has led me to believe that there is significant value for a firm in investing in human capital. When I'm surrounded by smart people, it makes me smarter. This is nothing new, but it works for me!


"The Best Thing I've Done Is Create A Little Book of Ideas"

I find that keeping as busy as possible charges my brain for those inevitable times of the day when you can be alone and think- and those times I savour. Not to be crude, but when I'm in the loo is a good one. Or travelling between places on the tube or the train. Driving helps a lot.

As others have said, sleep helps, but I use it more when I'm grappling with an issue or a problem or something really important. Often, when I have an assignment or a job application due, I sleep on it before handing it in, and inevitably wake up with several minor- yet crucial- adjustments that can mean all the difference.

The best thing I've done in the past 3-4 years is create a little book of ideas. It now exists both in my tasks list on Gmail and in a hardcover copybook by my bed. I write everything in there- a different way of designing metro systems based on polar coordinates rather than the Cartesian coordinates that have been favoured traditionally; or an innovative new business idea for hot drinks that are healthy for you. To focus my mind, I used the first page to outline a "bucket list", so that my ideas matched my life goals. I read it again every so often to centre my thinking and, despite the chatter of normal life, remind myself of what's truly important for me to achieve.


"How Do You Get To Eureka? I'm Not So Sure You Can Force It"

My earliest memory of this "Eureka Moment" dates back to when I was a child. I must've been in the 1st or 2nd grade. I was drawing a figure of some sort... something alien, perhaps from some movie I had seen; it was very organic. In any case I was stuck on the eye, I remember constantly erasing and redrawing, the tooth of the paper all but gone. My classmate Isis unexpectedly bumps my arm. I lose my patience, I yelled at her. Then I looked back down at my paper and alas the perfect stroke was created. A happy accident as they say. 

More than a decade has passed and now my creativity is constantly being challenged. I'm a graphic designer now and often if not most times, my answer comes from some serendipitous moment. My best designs, photos, and yes, illustrative strokes aren't usually premeditated, but are more-so formed from random quirks in sketches or in visual inspirations that set off a spark, the answer I've been looking for.

So to answer the question: How do you get to eureka? I'm not so sure you can force it. At least I've never been able to. I'm not saying an outside force needs to motivate your decisions, but you need to be ready and able to accept something as a great idea on a moment's whim. What's meant to be will come to pass and hopefully something serendipitous will come by your way.


"How Do You Get to Eureka? You Don't. You Let It Get to You."

There's no formula, equation or repeatable scenario to creativity, to finding that "next big idea." Ideas are stubborn, strong. They take their time brewing - like all good things - before spewing over, leaving you to pick up the scraps that remain and reassemble the mess. The mess is madness, yes, but part of the beauty comes in creating something out of all those limp lost thoughts, bringing them to life. If your "great idea" dangles just out of reach, eluding you, refusing to be caught, begin again. Start over, with lots of little thoughts. Collect them, everywhere you go. Store them in some dark corner, and wait. Wait and watch. Watch as that corner grows and explodes into light. Watch as the walls crumble, down. Then search through that rubble and build something new - when the wall falls, when you least expect it, you'll know what to do. 

How do you get to eureka? You don't. You let it get to you.

Share your creativity secrets in the comment section, submit a post on Tumblr, or tweet your thoughts to us with the hashtag #InnovationWeek. We'll compile your answers into a post later this week. (The longer and smarter you write, the more likely it is that we'll publish you.)
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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