The shortest post ever on creativity and the good idea a-ha moment

Plenty of times I’ve mouthed this bit of cliched so-called-wise advice: “You can’t rush a good idea.”

It’s true, but it’s not complete. Moreover, it’s often mis-interpreted as: “you have to wait around for the idea to come to you.” What I’m about to tell you may seem paradoxical. Don’t worry, it totally is.

With creativity or ideas, it’s true that deadlines are a tricky concept. If you are struggling with a creative endeavor, an idea, a solution for a tough problem, here’s my best advice: don’t let it go. On the one hand, you have to carry on with living your life; you can’t sit around waiting for it. But on the other foot, you have to carry it WITH you everywhere in your life.

If you’re thinking, “but won’t carrying it with me/keeping it in the back of my brain distract me from living my life?” Yes, yes it will. You will come close to driving through red lights, you will miss pieces of conversations,  you will pull out your library card to pay for groceries. I’m lucky enough to have been diagnosed with ADD and exhibit almost all of the symptoms. This means I can hold onto an idea, I can persevere, no matter what more important and necessary tasks come my way.1 You’ll just have to find your own way to get used to it.

Eventually, you will have the a-ha moment. Be ready. Keep paper and pen by your bed, in your car, at the office (or, join the 21st century and open a note-taking app on your phone).2 Write it down. Now. You think you’ll remember it verbatim between right now at the dentist’s office and home but you won’t. You’ll lose pieces. Your brain that had been so doggedly holding onto this task will breathe a sigh of relief. Some of the cognitive neurons holding up this ragged post-it note with all its adhesive worn off of an idea will duck out for a smoke break.

Now that you’ve got it written down, walk away for at least a day. It’s not that your ah-ha idea is no good. It’s not that it isn’t an immediate breakthrough. It’s just that it’s like the first trickle through the pinhole in a giant human-made dam. It’s the start of something big but it’s not the same as the crushing hydro power following right after the trickle.3 How long? Hard to say. At least a day, maybe longer. Keep checking in to see how you like it. It’s also helpful to have a friend who is smarter than you willing to take a look at your trickle and give you some feedback.4

How does this work in real life? I’m currently in the market for a new job. For several months I’ve been working on a cover letter concept. Something clever enough to be attention-grabbing, something serious enough to be professional, something substantive but short enough to actually get read. MONTHS. I think about it all the time. It’s a real road block to applying for jobs because it’s something every future employer requires5 and it can be so draining/daunting without a solid idea of how to market yourself in the very specific milieu that is the cover letter. I had an a-ha moment in the shower this morning. Pragmatism won the day as I toweled off and got dressed before nakedly hurtling downstairs to my basement office to write down the idea but I did write it down before heading out to an appointment. I was 5 minutes late but having all the pieces of the idea was worth it.

Well, I suppose it will be worth it when this cover letter snags me my dream job of being a travel agent for lovable shelter dogs while moonlighting as a well-respected op-ed writer tackling all the questions no one asked and giving all the advice no one solicited.

1Before you get too jealous, it also means I have flooded our basement and destroyed a perfectly good laptop by twice forgetting to hit the shut-off valve when re-filling our furnace with water, and at any given moment, I can only tell you the correct location for 2/3 of the Holy Trinity (i.e. wallet, phone, keys).

2And then don’t forget to not-lose the phone.

3 I sure do hope this is how dams burst because otherwise I am going to have to doggedly pursue a better metaphor.

4Quite honestly, having a friend who is smarter than you is helpful for so many reasons. I really can’t recommend getting one strongly enough. Frankly, if at all possible, you should marry your sexiest smarter friend. I’ll wait while you go down to apply for a marriage license.

5For the love of Maude, WHY OH WHY?!? Torture? To see just how well we prostrate ourselves?

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