7 fire-starters for your campfire of ideas

Those of you with scouting careers likely remember the myriad tricks used to start campfires. I’m not talking matches — I’m talking the things you threw a lit match on with the hope of getting a serious enough flame going to eventually light the kindling. In my troop, I have a vague memory of paper egg cartons, filled with something like dryer lint and wax. Now, of course, you can buy all kinds of fire starter kits. Probably you could then, too, but isn’t dryer lint so much cooler? 

I think there’s a metaphor in there for creativity. We often speak of ideas as flames. We try to “spark” ideas. Recently, for instance, Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin posted a list on her blog of “7 Tips I Use to Spark My Creativity.” People who’ve read her book know she likes to keep notes in books and read random magazines. These are great ideas. I subscribe to a ridiculous number of magazines in part because I figure if I find one idea in each per year they’ve more than paid back the subscription price. Plus, reading magazines is my moment of Zen. I like nothing better than reading a story about how someone lost 50 lbs and now fits into her old wedding dress (thank you, Redbook, for that story last month).

But as I think about creativity, I wonder if — to stretch the spark metaphor — it’s also important to have a lot of fire starters in your toolkit. These are activities that can take the germ of an idea and nurture and multiply it.  Because no matter what job you’re in, more ideas are probably better than fewer ideas. Even if you get a lot of bad ideas, success is largely a numbers game. Most likely, of 1000 ideas, they can’t all be awful. And one great one is worth a lot. Some equivalents of wax and dryer lint:

1. Work up a sweat. Oh, I wax eloquent about running to the point where book reviewers make fun of me. But whenever I take a break in the work day to go for a run (or go for a run #beforebreakfast) I come back with better ideas for whatever project I’m working on. There’s something about running that “jogs” thoughts loose. I imagine this also works with biking, swimming, Zumba class, etc.  

2. Do some cyberloafing. I love the word cyberloafing. It means to surf the web in pursuit of pleasurable things. I have the blogs I love to read (Wandering Scientist, for instance, and many, many others). Sometimes these bloggers have written things that I can then tee off of and make my own. There’s no love like link love.

3. Take in an art museum. Just getting out of the office often gets the egg carton and dryer lint smoldering. But there’s something about the images in museums, the juxtapositions of colors, the insights and such that make ideas come to me. If you can’t make it to a museum, you can approximate it by looking at online images from great places like the Louvre. Or Pinterest. Just don’t get so sidetracked with ideas for remodeling your bathroom that you cease doing work at all.

4. Be still. We’re so used to having every spot of boredom filled that situations where we’re not constantly hyped up put the brain in a new and curious mode. I find that sitting in church makes ideas start churning in my head. So does listening to a symphony in a concert hall. Or forcing myself to sit outside with nothing but a notebook (and not the electronic kind) for at least half an hour.

5. Talk to someone smart. I’ve been lucky enough in life to interview a few people who’ve just made my head spin (John Taylor Gatto was one of my favorites — a former NY state teacher of the year who now advocates homeschooling, among other things). But whatever line of work you’re in, it helps to talk to people who’ll tolerate your babbling and add something insightful. Who’s on your list?

6. Hit the library. To be sure, this is a variation on reading sundry magazines. But I find that haunting the stacks can make me think of poetry and evolutionary biology within a few minutes. This causes strange and wonderful pathways to form as the synapses fire. These strange and wonderful pathways keep the egg cartons burning long after I’ve driven home.

7. Think a lot. Like anything, the ability to come up with ideas can be honed with practice. If you need to come up with 10 article ideas a week, your brain will learn to come up with 10 article ideas a week. Soon, effortlessly it flows, like flames through dry kindling. Or not. Some weeks it’s like someone’s poured swamp sludge on the fire starters. But after much purifying, the ideas will be there too.

How do you nurture your creativity?

Photo courtesy flickr user Mori Claudia

4 thoughts on “7 fire-starters for your campfire of ideas

  1. I nurture my creativity (which is mostly channeled into my blog) by keeping a notebook handy to write down post ideas and words/phrases I like.

    I googled “john taylor gatto laura vanderkam” and it turned up 0 results. Do you have a link to that interview? I love his work!

    1. Hi Carrie- I used it in a USA Today column called “Some can sail over high school.” It ran in 2002. I wish I’d been able to use more of the interview, but it was for an op-ed, so there we go.

  2. Thanks for the link! And the one on the CBS News article, too. My post about a project manager’s view of long hours is getting lots of hits right now, thanks to you.

    On topic- hmmm. When I need some creativity, I usually either go for a walk or do some aimless websurfing. Both of those things let my mind wander so that good ideas can find their way to the surface.

    1. @Cloud – maybe I need to do a post one of these days on when cyberloafing is good, and when it’s really, really not. Glad you’re getting some hits from the CBS post.

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