Running A Business

How to Spark a Truly Great Idea

Sep 21, 2020 • 10+ min read
Woman thinking of an idea
Table of Contents

      Big ideas are everywhere. In some ways, they’re like butterflies, and you’re a lepidopterist (a fancy word for “butterfly collector”). Lepidopterists know that thousands of butterflies are fluttering around their area at any given time—the challenge is to come across the right one at the right time. If you have your net and show up ready for action, the thrill of the hunt can lead to a stunning discovery.

      So how do you chase down the right ideas? Well, as any lepidopterist will tell you, it’s not always the distance covered that truly matters. Your ultimate butterfly could come flying by while you’re sitting on a rock, admiring the movement of the trees in the afternoon breeze. You may have been looking elsewhere and thinking about other things, but as long as you have your net handy, the results could be successful.

      “Recently a Dutch TV crew came to my home for an interview about my latest research in astronomy,” recalls physicist Abraham Loeb. “When I told them I get many of my new ideas in the shower, they decided to film a scene showing the shower still running and me rushing from the bathroom, dressed in a robe, to my computer. But despite their best efforts, there was no way for them to get a visual of my ideas and where they actually come from. The same video could have been made with the previous occupant of the house who shared none of my scientific ideas. He and I happened to use the same shower, eat in the same kitchen and sleep in the same bedroom, altogether sharing the same spaces (at different times) but with very different outcomes.”

      Why is Loeb able to conjure big ideas in the shower? It helps that he’s a brilliant Harvard professor. But more importantly, he keeps his mind open to new ideas—even during mundane tasks such as his morning shower. And when ideas hit, he bolts from the bathroom to record them before they flutter from his memory. In this way, Loeb is as much a lepidopterist as he is a physicist.

      It’s not hard to imagine ideas having a life (and mind) of their own. If they trust you, they’ll grace you with their presence. The more you take thoughtful action based on them, the sooner they’ll return.

      In the business world, ideas can have immense value. But the best ideas need to be matched with the burning fire of entrepreneurship. If you’re not committed to seeing them through, there’s little chance of success. As the Vikings of old burned their ships to prevent an early departure from their excursions, so must you eliminate escape routes so that you’ll follow through on greatness.

      “If you don’t have that burning, personal desire to see your concept come to fruition, we don’t recommend pursuing your startup idea,” says Inc. “That’s because the early days of starting a company are notoriously difficult. You might find yourself questioning whether you’ve made the right call. That’s especially true as the months or years drag on, and you’ve decided to quit a lucrative career, invest personal savings, and sacrifice time away from family to chase your dream.”

      It’s clear that commitment is essential. Here are some ways to come up with big ideas worth committing to.

      Write It Out the Old-Fashioned Way 

      Closeup of man writing

      Most of us do our writing on a computer, tablet, or phone. While this is an efficient method, it removes the tangible sensations associated with putting pen to paper.

      Many experts believe that creativity has a clearer conduit when we write on paper. This doesn’t mean you should eschew word processors for the rest of your life. But if you’re trying to dig deep on a certain topic, try getting out a notebook and letting the ideas transfer through the ink.

      Remind Yourself of Your Creativity 

      Have you ever heard of the yips? It’s a condition that afflicts some athletes causing an involuntary muscle spasm that disrupts basic functions of their sport. For example, a golfer might become unable to drive a ball or a basketball player might have to relearn how to shoot a free throw.

      As entrepreneurs, we sometimes get a case of the mental yips. We forget how to conjure ideas and find solutions, resulting in the sensation of a brick wall standing between us and our goals.

      At times like these, you should reflect on your past successes. This isn’t merely an exercise in laurel-resting—it’s also an important way to retrain your brain. If you have triumphed in the past, you can do it again!

      Play Some Music 

      Woman listening to music on couch

      We all have music we like to jam out to. Whether it’s Hank Williams, Metallica, Madonna, Coldplay, or Yanni, the tunes we listen to have a profound impact on our minds.

      “Studies using MRI and positron emission tomography (PET) scans suggest that nerve networks in different parts of the brain bear primary responsibility for decoding and interpreting various properties of music,” explains a report from Harvard Medical School. “For example, a small area in the right temporal lobe is essential to perceive pitch, which forms the basis of melody (patterns of pitch over time), chords (several pitches that sound at the same time), and harmony (two or more melodies at the same time) […] A different part of the brain, the cerebellum, processes rhythm, and the frontal lobes interpret the emotional content of music. And music that’s powerful enough to be ‘spine-tingling’ can light up the brain’s ‘reward center,’ much like pleasurable stimuli ranging from alcohol to chocolate.”

      That’s right—listening to your favorite music can activate multiple regions of your brain and even bring euphoria. Who wouldn’t want to introduce those elements to their next brainstorming session?

      As a side note, research also indicates that classical music can enhance creativity and concentration. So if you find yourself stuck in neutral while listening to U2 or Whitney Houston, try playing some Chopin or Beethoven instead.

      Meditate 

      If a barrage of melodies doesn’t spur your creativity, you could opt for profound silence. This can be a particularly helpful activity if you’re suffering from a case of “mental yips” and feel that you’ve forgotten how to be creative.

      Simply find a quiet place where you can clear your mind. By rerouting your brain’s typical processes, your meditation can promote divergent thinking. It’s times like these, when you’re pondering things you wouldn’t typically consider, that new ideas have the opportunity to walk up and say hello.

      Get Outside 

      Man hiking and looking in the distance

      Just as meditation can provide a productive departure from your typical routine, a change of venue can also be helpful. Going to a new park or beach for some exploration can be mentally invigorating, perhaps bringing the inspiration you’re looking for.

      Many people actually prefer going to a place they know well when seeking ideas. Why’s that? If you’re familiar with the area, you won’t need to devote any brainpower to figuring out your route or dodging obstacles. You can just put your feet on autopilot and let your mind do the wandering.

      Do a Dance 

      If you’d like to try moving your feet in a different way, try dancing. We’ve already covered the transformative power of music, so imagine what can happen if you incorporate your favorite melodies with rhythmic body movements.

      The right dance will increase your heart rate, stimulate your brain, and stretch your tired muscles. In this heightened sense of awareness, don’t be surprised if your next great idea suddenly arrives.

      Leave Town 

      Sometimes the search for a creative spark requires more than just a stroll in the park. So pack your bags and head out on an adventure. Sitting on a bus, plane, or train can provide a delightful juxtaposition of physical rest and rapidly changing environments. This phenomenon can be so effective for promoting creativity that Amtrak actually established a writer’s residency years ago. Currently, it is offering a residency for social media storytellers.

      Your travels don’t need to be particularly lengthy. One night in a nearby town could potentially be just as impactful as a week in Milan. What matters is that you’re giving yourself a chance to recalibrate and overcome the mundane elements of your life.

      Find Your Space 

      Woman working alone in studio

      While traveling can be a delight, it’s simply not practical for many of us on a regular basis. You can capture some of that same magic by creating a designated idea space in your home.

      It’s not important whether this space is a massive room with ample sunlight or a smallish corner of your apartment’s living room. What matters is that you have a dedicated place where you can light a candle, play some music, hang your favorite photographs, and get into the perfect headspace.

      Stephen King, one of the top-selling authors of his generation, famously wrote some of his best books in the cramped confines of his laundry room. He probably would’ve preferred a comfortable studio for his creations, but necessity steered him to the laundry room.

      Sleep

      Perhaps what you need most is 40 winks. Ideas have a way of popping up as our mind processes sundry topics in our sleep, allowing you to think of things in new ways as your mind is given free rein.

      “Lots of research backs up the idea that sleep boosts creativity,” says a report from Psychology Today. “In one study…participants were given a challenging and time-consuming number task. However, what the participants didn’t know was that there was a hidden secret strategy built into the task and if they figured it out, it would greatly speed up their progress. All participants were introduced to the task and then some were allowed 8 hours of sleep while others were kept awake. After the 8 hours had passed, participants resumed working on the task. The results showed that 60% of the sleep group discovered the hidden strategy compared to only 23% of the wake group.”

      Many entrepreneurs like to take a nap for this very reason. If a nap isn’t in the cards for you, try to set yourself up for success with a deep sleep. You can increase the odds of this occurring by powering down your electronics well before bedtime and not eating any midnight snacks.

      Allow Yourself to Daydream 

      You don’t have to actually fall asleep to benefit from the power of dreams. Daydreaming is like a yoga session for the mind, as you give it the chance to stretch and explore.

      Daydreaming can be a particularly effective option when you don’t have the time for a bigger excursion, liike hikes or traveling. Simply close your eyes, lean back on a comfy cushion, and see where your mind takes you. These moments of solitude can spark some surprisingly poignant ideas.

      Laugh Out Loud

      Older woman laughing out loud

      Increased activity in your prefrontal cortex can help bring additional firepower to your idea hunt. Laughing helps accomplish this, while also getting your anterior cingulate cortex involved in the process. This double whammy of mental stimulation might provide exactly what you need to come up with an idea great enough to make your mom proud.

      “Surprise is at the heart of comedy,” says Psychology Today. “Surprise is also at the heart of creativity. Creativity is about more than just producing something. It’s about producing something in a new way, a different way, a surprising way. So, if you want to be creative in your life or work, it’s important to be available to surprise. And the best way to be available to surprise is to spend time immersed in humor, which is based on, and turns on, surprise. A joke sends a powerful message to your brain and your nervous system. It sends the message that the obvious route you were traveling on, as you moved toward your expected destination, isn’t the only route you could take. There are alternatives. There are other pathways you can choose.”

      How should you elicit these laughs? That’s entirely up to you. For some people, it’s a quick chat with their funniest friend. Others might want to stream an episode of 30 Rock or Seinfeld. Whatever your preference, do what it takes to get your laughs fired up.

      Hang Out 

      It might seem a little counterintuitive to chill with your friends if you’re working toward an idea breakthrough—but spending time with your favorite people is a great way to clear your head and boost your mood.

      Furthermore, your time with friends will inevitably include conversations. Participating in dialogue with someone you respect can bring all kinds of new insights to the table. You might be talking about something completely unrelated to your small business, but something said at the right time by the right person can really click for you.

      Do Some Freewriting

      Woman Doing Freewriting By Window

      Sometimes we get so focused on our brainstorm that we don’t make room for the other ideas. But these ancillary thoughts can be more profound than you might realize, easily leading to bigger discoveries.

      In order to open the floodgates, try freewriting. This is where you write everything that comes to mind, regardless of how coherent or relevant it initially appears.

      “The term freewriting originated with a man called Peter Elbow,” explains Medium. “It was developed to allow writers to follow a train of thought. It’s essentially like clustering, but in sentences. The reason we do this is to help recognize essential emotions or exciting phrases that could be implemented into our main writing piece. It’s also an excellent exercise to help beat writer’s block, as freewriting allows you to write confidently because there is no plan or expectation that comes along with the style of writing. It is also a useful writing warm-up, as generally this method of writing only takes a few minutes.”

      The secret to a good freewriting session: make it as easy as possible to translate your thoughts into words. A fresh piece of paper in front of you might be the best way to record these thoughts, but if you’re more comfortable and confident using a word processor, then feel free to take that route.

      Find What Works for You

      As you put more effort into your idea-generating pursuits, you’ll find that certain strategies rise to the top. Perhaps long walks on the beach will prove to be the most consistent way for you to spur ideas. Or maybe you’ll find it’s best to enjoy a quick daydreaming session on the couch.

      Regardless of your approach, just make sure to make time for your ideas. In the hustle and bustle of the small business world, it’s easy to overlook these more nuanced aspects of entrepreneurship. But every effort you invest in the generation of big ideas can yield an impressive return down the road.

      About the author
      Grant Olsen

      Grant Olsen is a writer specializing in small business loans, leadership skills, and growth strategies. He is a contributing writer for KSL 5 TV, where his articles have generated more than 6 million page views, and has been featured on FitSmallBusiness.com and ModernHealthcare.com. Grant is also the author of the book "Rhino Trouble." He has a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University.

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