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“That's the nature of any creative activity -- you're mostly going to be rejected.”—
The New Yorker’s Bob Mankoff at a recent TED salon. When Mankoff quit psychology school in 1997 to become a cartoonist, he submitted 2,000 cartoons to the New Yorker that year. Of them, 2,000 were rejected. Today, he is the magazine’s cartoon editor.
Pair with the fantastic Fail Safe and Ray Bradbury’s advice on perseverance in the face of rejection.
In the 1950s, the researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that we sleep in cycles of roughly 90 minutes, moving from light to deep sleep and back out again. They named this pattern the Basic-Rest Activity Cycle or BRAC. A decade later, Professor Kleitman discovered that this cycle recapitulates itself during our waking lives.
The difference is that during the day we move from a state of alertness progressively into physiological fatigue approximately every 90 minutes. Our bodies regularly tell us to take a break, but we often override these signals and instead stoke ourselves up with caffeine, sugar and our own emergency reserves — the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol.
Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.
I was immediately reminded of John Cleese’s lecture on creativity:
Cleese specifically advocates taking 90 minutes to create space and time. It takes him about 30 minutes to calm down and open his mind, leaving an hour of creative time working on something.
The best ideas you'll ever have are the ones you've already had
Because the only ideas you can have are founded on what you already know.
You can’t dream up things that don’t exist if you don’t already know about the pieces required to make them up.
This explains why ideas rely on a certain state of culture and readily-available resources to come to fruition. The Internet wasn’t invented in the 1800s because the sum of it’s parts didn’t exist yet. Similarly, the iPhone, war drones, flower delivery services, the Nintendo Wii, and your grandparent’s famous oatmeal cookie recipe, all weren’t created before their time.
What you know is more powerful than your imagination, but imagination and having a lot of existing ideas is what makes it possible to have really big ideas.
Two great quotes come to mind on the subject, both from Steven Johnson’s 2010 book “Where Good Ideas Come From”
The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.
So yes, the best ideas you have are the ones you’ve already had, but you can get more by consuming more. Read more, walk more, talk to strangers more, click on weird links, share your ideas with others and invite them to share their ideas with you.
If you want to really have good ideas you’re going to have to consume and experiment occasionally too. Johnson’s second quote reminds us of this:
The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.