In college, I had a 40-minute commute to class. I branded this time as “dream driving,” which is absolutely corny, I know.
But I completed two specific activities during every route. The first was listening to podcasters or ebooks on a variety of topics. The second was turning on my music and letting my mind wander.
During this time, I had more ideas than outlets. I was dreaming about opportunities, careers, projects, assignments and my future in general. The best part was there was no limit to where my brain could wander and a variety of inputs feeding my imagination.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was I created an innovation garden (also corny, but hear me out). I planted seeds that could cross-pollinate by listening to conversations and attending classes and I watered those inputs with regular moments of mind wandering.
Fast-forward post-graduation and I was building a career. My 40-minute commute turned into a 5-minute walk. Luckily, as a reporter, I was still receiving a variety of inputs but instead of classes and podcasts, it was interviews with the people and businesses I’d feature in the articles I was writing. However, those inputs were never watered through mind wandering and so my idea generation slowed.
Several years later, I found myself leading an entire marketing team. At the time, I thought, “finally, an outlet for all my ideas.”
But there was a problem: I had none.
Well, I had some, but they weren’t that interesting. So, what happened to that commuting college student who was bursting at the seams with ideas? More importantly, how do I get her back, or can I get her back?
The good news is creativity didn’t die after college. I simply stopped nurturing my innovation garden.
I had to take time to invest in two critical elements.
So, here’s the method I use to create an environment in my mind ripe for idea generation.
First, Find Quality Inputs
I was at South Padre Island running along the beach every day, the sunset on one side and the ocean on the other. In my ears I had my headphones so I could listen to the book Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process by John Mcphee. The first chapter is titled “Progression” with the equation ABC/D. Mostly, the chapter is about composition, but I think it also has a lot to say about ideas.
Mcphee writes, “For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream. Since you may take a month, or ten months, or several years to turn one idea into a piece of writing, what governs the choice?”
He continues later in the chapter by saying, “Ideas are where you find them.”
That’s it! My ah-ha moment. Ideas are found, not inspired.
So why are we waiting around for a muse to knock on our door rather than looking for inputs?
The first mistake we might make when finding inputs is we look for content that feeds our area of expertise. I am a marketer by trade, so my first instinct might be finding people who share content about marketing.
That’s a fine approach and a good start.
But, I like to take a multidisciplinary approach to inputs not just in the topic area but also in format.
Inputs that help me generate ideas could be a TikTok Influencer whose channel is all about organization hacks followed by a YouTube video about SEO and the latest book about internet privacy.
Those elements can all feed my idea: ABC/D
Even this article is a combination of concepts. John Mcphee + Mark Twain = Argument in Favor of Inputs.
Wait, why Mark Twain?
Well, he said, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and used daily use by the gardener with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them …”
I am using past influences to argue that there is value in inputs despite the fact that they often get the reputation of being time-wasters.
Second, Invest in Time for Mind Wandering
Speaking of time wasters, in the era of productivity, there is almost no value placed on quiet nothingness.
Everything has a purpose, plan and an accompanied deliverable.
Thinking is a waste of time unless there is a product at the end of the process.
The reality is, quiet time could be the exact thing you need for an innovative idea but I can’t tell you for certain how long it will take.
Maybe it’s an hour every day for two weeks or maybe it’s just an afternoon. It could take years of input and silence for an idea worth chasing to be found.
That doesn’t mean I am doing nothing for years until I discover something interesting. It means I am evaluating concepts, discovering what doesn’t work and producing. The only thing that has changed is the priority level I apply to the idea formula.
Since my daily commute now consists of 23 steps from my bed to my home office, my mind wandering happens when I do flong-distance running, sit on my back porch and watch the wildlife in the creek behind the house or when I play video games (yes, video games).
Inputs + Time = Creative Outputs
The good news is I’ve rediscovered that version of myself bursting with ideas. Now, I have both inputs and outputs not to mention a decade of valuable work experience.
And here’s what I’d love to see shift in the modern workplace.
I want there to be value placed on idea generation even though it is the type of work that produces intangible results. It’s hard to quantify inputs and time wandering until after the good idea is produced.
I can’t say, I need to read this blog, listen to this podcast and watch this video and then I’ll know exactly what to do next. It might be dozens of blogs and podcasts. It might be 10 hours of inputs and time or 20 hours of inputs and time. I don’t know.
Here’s what I do know, when I follow the process, good ideas will be found.
It’s not a matter of if but when.
Want to be inspired? Increase your inputs.
Pragmatic Institute has a library of courses designed to help product managers. You’ll also be able to join the Pragmatic Alumni Community where other professionals can serve as inputs for inspiration.