Idea Quotas

Idea Quotas

Ask the average adult for ideas and you will be amazed at how few ideas they have. For example, ask a friend to come up with alternative uses for the common brick and my hunch is your friend may come up with not many, perhaps, three or four.

However, if I asked you to come up with sixty uses for the common brick as fast as you can, this forces you to come with 60 ideas. By forcing yourself to meet a quota, you put your internal critic on hold and write everything down, including the obvious and weak. The first third will be the same-old, same-old ideas you always get. These ideas are the familiar and safe responses that lie closest to your consciousness, and therefore, are naturally thought of first. The second third will be more interesting and the last third will show more insight, curiosity and complexity because now you are stretching your imagination.

To meet your quota, you find yourself listing all the usual uses (build a wall, fireplace, outdoor barbeque and so on) as well as listing everything that comes to mind (anchor, projectile in riots, ballast, a tool for leveling dirt, material for sculptures, doorstop, device to hold down newspapers, a portable step to carry with you so you can stand on it in crowds, stone crab cracker and so on) as you stretch your imagination to meet your quota. A quota allows you to generate more imaginative alternatives than you otherwise would.

The mind is like the universe. You have billions of bits of thoughts, observations, and information floating around in your conscious and subconscious mind, totally unobserved, with each bit presenting a multitude of possibilities which evolve and change over time. These thoughts are in multiple states such as words, phrases, metaphors, images, feelings, dreams, symbols, abstractions, voices, and so on. Particles of thought pop up out of nothingness and become entangled with other thoughts influencing each other instantaneously.

Just as subatomic particles do not exist unless observed, your subconscious thoughts do not exist until observed. In other words, there is no thought independent of you, the observer. When you are brainstorming for ideas and have a thought, the value of that thought depends upon how you interact with it. If you are an analytical thinker and automatically classify thoughts as irrelevant or unrelated, you are crippling your potential for creative ideas and solutions.

We are taught to be exclusionary thinkers, which means we exclude anything that is not immediately related to our subject. If there is any ambiguity, the average person will invariably censor it and the thought dissipates back into nothingness. This exclusionary way of thinking is how we lost our natural capacity to spontaneously generate ideas.

This is why the average person produces only a handful of ideas when brainstorming; whereas, a creative genius will produce great quantities of ideas. Thomas Edison, for example, created 3000 different ideas for a lighting system before he stepped back to evaluate them for practicality and profitability. All geniuses produce great quantities of ideas because they uncritically search for all possible alternatives. Albert Einstein was asked once what the difference was between him and the average person, he answered “If you ask the average person to find a needle in a haystack, he or she will stop when they find a needle. I, on the other hand, will go through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.

You give value to your thoughts when you interact with them and accept them uncritically. Once observed and accepted, thoughts become loose and move freely around in your subconscious mind. The more work you put into thinking about a problem, the more thoughts and bits of information you set in random motion. Your subconscious mind never rests. When you quit thinking about the subject, your thoughts keep colliding, combining, recombining and making associations. Eventually bits of thoughts and information will become entangled and create a novel idea which will bubble up into your consciousness when you least expect it.

A footwear designer looked to create a new concept for high heel shoes. Specifically, he wanted something to differentiate his high heel shoes from the traditional shoes. He listed well over 200 ideas, including many outrageous ideas such as shoes that make sounds, invisible high heels, high heels that light up when they contact the ground, and so on. The one theme of his many ideas that intrigued him was “sound.” This inspired him to design shoes to emit sounds as if the wearer was walking on a giant piano, through water, or on crunchy snow.
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; and Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. His new book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work has just been released.

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