A habit to consciously cultivate is the habit of keeping a written record of your creativity attempts in a notebook, on file cards, or in your computer. A record not only guarantees that the thoughts and ideas will last, since they are committed to paper or computer files, but it will also goad you into other thoughts and ideas. The simple act of recording his ideas enabled Leonardo Da Vinci to dwell on his ideas and improve them over time by elaborating on them. Thus, Leonardo was able to take simple concepts and work them into incredible complex inventions that were years ahead of their time, such as the helicopter, the bicycle, and the diving suit.
Thomas Edison organized his ideas by relentlessly recording and illustrating every step of his voyage to discovery in his 3,500 notebooks that were discovered after his death in 1931. His strategy of keeping a written record of his work was a significant key to his genius. His notebooks got him into the following habits:
- They enabled him to cross-fertilize ideas, techniques and conceptual models by transferring them from one problem to the next. For example, when it became clear in 1900 that an iron-ore mining venture in which Edison was financially committed was failing and on the brink of bankruptcy, he spent a weekend poring over his notebooks and came up with a detailed plan to redirect the company’s efforts toward the manufacture of Portland cement, which could capitalize on the same model of the iron-ore company.
- Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he’d abandoned in the past in the light of what he’d recently learned. If he was mentally blocked working on a new idea, he would review his notebooks to see if there was some thought or insight that could trigger a new approach. For example, Edison took his unsuccessful work to develop an undersea telegraph cable variable resistance and incorporated it into the design of a telephone transmitter that adapted to the changing sound waves of the caller’s voice. This technique instantly became the industry standard.
- Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents, research papers written by other inventors, and ideas others had come up with in other fields. He would also routinely comb a wide variety of diverse publications for novel ideas that sparked his interest and record them in his notebooks. He made it a habit to keep a lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others had used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you’re working on.
- Edison also studied his notebooks of past inventions and ideas to use as springboards for other inventions and ideas in their own right. To Edison, his diagrams and notes on the telephone (sounds transmitted) suggested the phonograph (sounds recorded), and those notes and diagrams, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect, isn’t it? Genius usually is.
WALT WHITMAN’S SYSTEM
Walt Whitman was another creative thinker who collected ideas to stimulate his creative potential. His journals describe an ingenious technique he developed for recording ideas. Anytime an idea would strike his imagination, he would write it down on a small slip of paper. He placed these slips into various envelopes that he titled according to the subject area each envelope contained. In order to have a place for each new idea he encountered, Whitman kept ideas in many different envelopes.
Whitman, whenever he felt a need to spawn new thoughts or perspectives, would select the various envelopes pertaining to his current subject or interests. He retrieved ideas from the envelopes, randomly at times or, on other occasions, only those ideas relevant to his subject; then he would weave these ideas together as if he were creating an idea tapestry. These idea tapestries often became the foundation for a new poem or essay.
CREATE YOUR OWN IDEA COLLECTION SYSTEM
- Collect all interesting ideas that you encounter from brainstorming sessions, ideas you read about or ideas you create.
- Record them thematically in a notebook, in your computer, or on note cards. File them by subject (e.g. organizational improvement, sales presentations, new markets, new product ideas, etc.) in a file box. In the event you need further information about an idea, indicate the source where you found the idea. Cross reference any ideas that may fit into several different categories. Whenever you experience a problem, retrieve ideas from your file that you feel may apply to your need. Spread the ideas out before you and review them.