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Creative Inspiration

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.

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