Another 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 will 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.

EDISON’S NOTEBOOKS. Edison relentlessly recorded and illustrated 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:

1. 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.

2. Whenever he succeeded with a new idea, Edison would review his notebooks to rethink ideas and inventions he had abandoned in the past in the light of what he 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.

3. Edison would often jot down his observations of the natural world, failed patents and 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 have used successfully on other problems in other fields. To Edison, your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.

4. 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), which notes and diagrams, in turn, suggested motion pictures (images recorded). Simple, in retrospect. Genius usually is.

Walt Whitman was another genius 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.

Following are guidelines for keeping a written record:

1. Collect all interesting ideas that you encounter from brainstorming sessions, ideas you read about or ideas you create.

2. Record them thematically in a notebook, in your computer, or on note cards and 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.

3. Once you have developed a fairly extensive idea base, there are several methods to glean insight from your collection.

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. Use the following suggestions to select the ideas most suited to your needs:

1. Select ideas containing attributes closely related to your subject’s attributes.

2. Once you have selected several ideas from the larger group, prepare to apply the ideas to your current needs. You may realize that the entire idea applies or only one procedure or portion of the idea applies. Likewise, ideas may have to be modified in order to apply them to the situation.

3. Combine and apply appropriate attributes or procedures from two or more ideas.

Geniuses recognize the essential merits and attributes of a good idea and can adapt these elements to their subjects, thereby creating a new idea. Many original ideas are second hand, consciously or unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources and used by the idea garnerer with pride and satisfaction. Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, once said that his simple genius was the ability to create something new from the ideas and inventions of others.

Try the following thought experiment.


Have someone slowly read this list out loud. (If you don’t have anyone handy, read the list to yourself, then close the book.) Take three minutes to write down all the words you remember.

sour nice candy
honey sugar soda
bitter pie good
heart taste cake
tooth tart chocolate

Compare the words you wrote down to the original list.

Most people falsely remember the word sweet as being on the list. The word isn’t there, but it is related to the words that are on the list. Thinking is associative and thinking about one thing can get you thinking about related things.

Here’s an interesting story about John Patterson who was president of National Cash Register. He was a fan of Napoleon, who always wrote his thoughts in a journal he carried with him. Patterson rode horseback with his executives every day at 5 A.M. He demanded that they maintain a little red book to record their daily thoughts, ideas, and so on. He ruthlessly fired many executives who failed to maintain a red book. Interestingly, one-sixth of the major U.S. companies were headed by ex-NCR employees for 20 years after Patterson’s death, including Tom Watson, founder of IBM.