Is creativity a gift or a skill? Thinking of new ideas can actually be

When we see a good idea, it often seems obvious in hindsight, much like looking at a Pollock or a Rothko in an art museum and thinking of a painting that seems doable. But the original ideas are hard to reverse for what now seems obvious.

So where do good ideas come from? There are rumors of hot ideas coming to you, maybe in the shower. This myth can make creatives everywhere frustrated, impatient, and basically feel like failures.

As marketing creatives, we spend long hours brainstorming and brainstorming. Yet when we talk about improvement and fresher ideas, we can work on our writing and filmmaking techniques and put a lot of effort into keeping up with emerging technologies. But it seems a lot of people aren’t working on how to actually think about ideas.

When I ask creatives right out of school how they work, they say they just start writing in a Google doc with their partner when they have 20 minutes between meetings. Can this ideation skill improve?


To find better ideas, access them faster, and pause in our efforts, we can learn from what has been studied in other creative fields. To achieve maximum creative ability, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson violinists studied in Germany to compare their abilities with their practice. The most successful performers practiced an average of 3.5 hours a day in three separate 60-90 minute sessions.

Meanwhile, moderate performers trained an average of 1.4 hours a day without rest during their workouts. High performers also rested more, on average sleeping an extra hour per night. Practicing non-stop did not improve moderate violinists. Sometimes putting down the proverbial pencil is the secret to uncovering ideas when we pick it up.

In computer science, mathematics or strategy, we say: “Garbage in, garbage out”. Creatively, it is important to live this mantra. Inspiration snowballs from inspiration. While spending time reading, watching movies, seeing concerts, or having a deep interest outside of work might not feel like work, that time can go a long way toward ideas that don’t suck. It’s also just plain fun.

Double Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. Keep in mind that this also means having a lot of bad ideas. The onion generates more 600 headlines before arriving at the 16 winners each week. Adam Grant explains in his book Originals that the most successful composers were also by far the most prolific.


An abundance mindset pays off in creativity. But from what I’ve noticed, most people generate about 20 ideas before pitching a few. There are dozens of shortcuts to being much more creatively prolific and doing it quickly. Here are some ideation exercises to help generate lots of ideas quickly:

• Analogies: Once you’ve settled on some ideas, think of a similar person, place, or brand that has dealt with a similar problem. So if you’re trying to make kids think vegetables are fun, think about who else is making things fun for kids; McDonald’s introduced mealtime toys for kids, Disney World made queuing fun, a good babysitter can solve a rainy day. What tactics do they use? Try stealing pages from other people’s playbooks to brainstorm your creative problem.

• Opposites: Since we are always trying to disrupt category cliches to get noticed and remembered, another exercise to try is to list all the expected ways to approach the problem. What are the tropes or clichés that everyone does? Write them down, then go through the list and imagine what the opposite looks like. Go for it, even if it seems ridiculous, and especially if it seems to get you fired. Coming up with these ideas swimming upstream can trigger entirely new lines of thought.

• Building: do not forget the power of “Yes, and.“It’s by building on the ideas of others that we move from a room with mediocre ideas to progress until they become new, better ideas. Create a Google Sheets document for your team and have them each imagine in their own column. After eight minutes, everyone moves one column to the right and has to rely on someone else’s ideas. Pass that line of ideas to the next person on the team, and in 20-30 minutes you should have 100 new ideas.

• Handcuffs: Interestingly, putting your thought into a little box can suddenly spark a lot of ideas. Try to put constraints on your ideas; for single moms, moms with friends, couples, families together. Or free, then a budget of $2 million. Try reframing around an idea, then do variations of what it would be like in five years, or how it’s going on Jimmy Kimmel. Going from a small box to a small box can end up opening your mind to many drawers of cool ideas that were previously closed.

• Blends: Creativity results from the recombination of existing ideas in unexpected ways. Make a list of attributes from one aspect of what you’re working on, and another unrelated list from a different aspect, then mix and match. So if you’re working on a seamless customer experience, list the attributes of a well-run emergency room alongside a list of the attributes of a high-end tailor. Or a caring doula. Or a pit crew.

In order to make these exercises work, keep a timer on, running each ideation at three to five minutes. Then switch to a different constraint, frame, or construct. The fast pace creates an urgency that can really free your mind to just brainstorm.

Of course, before this ideation, some work must be done to understand your user’s needs and define the problem. After that, it’s time to generate that mountain of ideas. Filters should then be applied to select the most promising, feasible or affordable ideas. But once you have a mountain of ideas, you might find that then, out of nowhere, lightning can strike.

Susan Tracy is Executive Creative Director at EnergyBBDO. She runs content marketing programs and leads creative workshops.

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