We all like the idea of being creatively inspired, of having
wonderful new ideas suddenly pop into our heads. Such bursts
of creativity do happen, of course. Albert Einstein is said to
have had such creative inspiration come to him while shaving
in the morning. The chemist Friedrich August Kekulé discovered
the ring structure of benzene in a dream about a snake biting
its own tail. Here is how he described the experience:
I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms
were flitting before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept
modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute
by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger
structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more
closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snake-like
motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized
hold of its own, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes.
As if by a flash of lightning, I awoke.
He suddenly understood what the structure of the chemical
benzene had to look like. But it is important to note that he
had been studying the matter and thinking about it. This is an
important clue about how to have these creative inspirations
yourself. Such an "aha" moment is only possible because
of the work you have already done.
In other words, these creative insights don't come from nowhere.
Friedrich August Kekulé was a chemist, after all, and
not an plumber. If he had been the latter, he might have had
a dream about a whirlpool and awoke with a new idea for a toilet.
Creative ideas come from knowledge and the mental work done with
that knowledge. While these two elements aren't always sufficient,
they are necessary. A final element which can help is the use
of special techniques for generating ideas.
Knowledge + Work + Techniques = Creative Inspiration
What if you have spent some time gathering knowledge in an
area, worked with that knowledge, thought about its relation
to other things you know, and considered the implications. What
else can you do to have more creative ideas, to have one of those
moments of creative inspiration? You can train yourself to think
more creatively, by asking certain questions and using certain
techniques until they are a normal part of your thinking. The
following three example will get you going.
1. What other perspectives might be useful?
Ask yourself this question from time to time or, better yet,
simply systematically consider any other perspectives you can
think of without assumptions about which ones might be useful
or not. If you design air-conditioning systems, for example,
you might think from the perspective of environmentalists, electric
companies, the stores that sell them, or of course, the final
consumer. An environmentalist perspective might lead to ideas
for making them solar-powered. An electric company perspective
second could lead to a design that cooled water at night when
electric demand is low, so the water could cool the building
during the day.
2. Play with the attributes of things. For example, a baby
carriage has wheels, a bar that you push it with, and a sun-cover.
Play with these things and you might imagine a carriage which
is pulled instead of pushed, or with skis instead of wheels,
for winter use. If you imagine bigger wheels, or two wheels instead
of four, what creative ideas come to mind?
3. Give your mind a break. After trying to consciously think
of new ideas, take a break or a nap even. It's what Kekulé
was doing when he fell asleep in chair and had his creative dream/idea.
Conscious thinking can, at some point, get in the way of creativity.
Let your unconscious mind know that it's on its own, then take
a nap or do something that is mentally non-taxing, like walking
or listening to your favorite CD. You may have one of those classic
"aha!" moments of inspiration.