What do a naked intellectual, a shady goldsmith and a summary execution all have in common?
Along with a very angry King, the aforementioned are all central characters in the origin story of the term Eureka; which means, a sudden understanding. This sudden understanding is the outcome we all hope for when we seek out inspiration.
It’s that moment in the shower, on a walk, late at night or bright and early in the morning when our brain decides to gift us with the rapid connection between a sea of seemingly disparate mental dots, forming a crystal clear moment of exaltant understanding.
That ever elusive creative breakthrough.
As far as I know, there is no sure-fire method for producing these moments on command. Which is unfortunate since as creative professionals having those moments on a regular basis is pretty much our job. That’s why this weekly post series is dedicated to exploring various tips, tricks and best practices associated with achieving creative breakthroughs on a regular basis.
It’s important to keep in mind that what works for you one day may not work on another day. A series like this can become an arsenal of weapons to use against creative block, allowing you to pair the right solution with the situation at hand.
If you’d like to start at the beginning (or bookmark it for later) I highly recommend checking out our first post in this series: Sparks Fly with Collaboration. And of course, feel free to sign up for our newsletter in the page footer too.
Today’s Prerequisite: Understanding The Nature of “Inspiration”
It’s easy for creative professionals (myself included) to get this whole “search for inspiration thing” completely wrong. That’s because the term “inspiration” is often misused. As a result, the term itself needs to be replaced (or supplemented) with something more apt.
Here’s the problem:
In large part, due to the proliferation of art and design blogs across the web all using the term “inspiration” as a blog category populated with image/video dumps and list posts, we’ve mistaken the spark of inspiration for both the fuel of inspiration and the creative breakthrough itself.
An image, video, idea, timely word, etc., those are sparks of inspiration. Things that may – at the right moment with the right fuel – spark a creative breakthrough. But as anyone who’s tried to start a car on an empty gas tank knows…you cannot ignite non-existent fuel. You need both fuel in the tank and a working spark plug before ignition is possible.
What begins to become apparent is that there are roughly three stages involved in producing (and reproducing) a Eureka moment:
1. Filling up on creative fuel
2. Igniting said fuel
3. Using the ignited fuel to achieve creative objectives
Stage three is almost always taken care of; you know where you want to go, you have a job to do, there are objectives in place. Likewise, most of us are pretty good at igniting fuel when we have it, because let’s be honest, watching a cool video or looking at a roundup of rad images is a lot easier than filling our brains with more substantial content. Or what I like to call creative fuel. Which brings us to today’s tip.
Today’s Tip: Keep the Tank Full
What exactly do I mean when I say keep the tank full?
Keeping the tank full means carefully selecting and consuming high-quality substantial content. Content that took someone smarter than you a long time and a lot of effort to create.
Or at least that’s my filter. Some of you might be geniuses or experts in every intellectual discipline known to man – in which case you can probably stop reading this post – but for the rest of us I think that’s a good litmus test as to what qualifies as “high-quality substantial content”.
Successful Creatives Known for “Topping Off” Regularly
As a proof of concept, I’d like to point to several highly successful creative professionals who are known for keeping a full tank of creative fuel. I think you’ll agree their accomplishments are not only impressive, but consistently impressive.
Fabio is known for his wildly popular blog Abduzeedo and more recently for his work at Google. Abduzeedo is “one of the design world’s most sought after blogs for design inspiration and tutorials” and it’s lead to Fabio working on projects for some of the biggest brands in the world. But if you’ve ever heard him explain the origin of the site, it was merely a place for him to record things that he was learning or that helped him spark new ideas for the projects he had before he made it big. In essence the blog was just a bi-product of his habit of constantly filling up his creative tank with useful information and that habit has served him extremely well.
Jeff Hamada is another great example. He’s been running the extremely popular art/design blog – Booooooom – for several years now as well. His habit of keeping the tank full has lead to a career in which he’s not only been able to work for large clients/brands but now he’s able to focus primarily on making personal art for the sake of art. Something I know a lot of us creatives yearn for.
I’ve heard Tina speak a few times either at her own events or other conferences and I have always been motivated by her insistence on doing. The story behind Tattly is a great example of this rule she holds herself to. Don’t just talk about something, do it. A good counterbalance to the habit many of us have of gorging on creative sparks without putting anything into motion. But if you check out her blog I think you’ll see that she’s also a firm believer in keeping the tank full and sharing those finds with others.
If you haven’t subscribed to BrainPickings.org or the other projects Maria Popova helps to curate then you are missing out. She’s a huge believer in combinatorial creativity. The idea that we need to branch out from just content associated with our particular discipline and cross-pollinate ideas from all over the place. Almost everything she does is a testament to filling your creative tank with new and interesting fuel.
Implementation Best Practices
Ok, so you get that keeping your creative tank full of high-quality substantial content (a.k.a. fuel) is important. Lets talk about what doing that actually looks like. Below I’ve listed a few best practices that I try to follow. Hopefully they’ll prove a good place for you to start too.
1. Utilize an RSS Reader
Having one place where you can view all of your high-quality web content is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. Since the death of Google Reader I’ve been using Feedly and loving it. There are obviously other options out there so choose whatever works best for you. Otherwise, you’ll be bouncing all over the place and most likely missing out on all the really good stuff in favor of whatever your high school friends are posting on facebook.
2. Make Lots of Lists
Every time I read a good book I take note of every book referenced by the author throughout it (or in the index at the back). Likewise I’ve made a habit of using tools like IMDB and Wikipedia to map out movie lists by my favorite actors/directors or by specific topics/genres/etc. In each case the goal is to weed out the boring and insubstantial so that I always have a stockpile of new fuel that I’m excited to consume.
3. Mindfully Consume Substantial Content
Making lists and subscribing to a lot of high-quality websites is a good start, but the most important part is putting that stuff in your brain. I create a queue or schedule of not only what’s up next, but of how soon I should be done with a given piece of content. If a book is taking me weeks to read, I opt to put it down and move on to something else. Or bullishly push through to the end. Either way, make momentum your top priority at this stage and keep that tank full!
4. Process, Share & Cross-Pollinate
Ok, now that your tank is full and you have a system in place for keeping it that way it’s time to unplug, think, talk to people, share your lessons and experiences and cross-pollinate what you’re doing with what others are doing. This is often when some of the most exciting things happen. You land a big new client based on a side project, you find a muse hiding somewhere unexpected and it leads your work in an exciting direction, you make new creative friends and the list goes on.
5. Rest & Repeat
This isn’t actually a chronological step so much as a reminder to make this a continuous process with regular intervals for rest and renewal. Our brains can contain a lot of information, but it’s really hard to process that information in a meaningful way if we never take the time to quiet our minds, sleep, do nothing and allow our brain the room it needs to be brilliant.
Are You Keeping The Tank Full?
If you’re like me then you’ve caught yourself gorging on mental junk food and mistaking it for substantial creative fuel. It’s an unfortunate realization as it usually occurs when you’re coming up empty on a project with a looming deadline. However, by studying those I’ve mentioned in this post (among others) and trying to be mindful of what I consume, I’ve seen a lot of improvement in my career and general creative performance.
What about you? Are you keeping the tank full? If so, what has helped you stay consistent? If not, what challenges do you tend to run up against? Tell us your story in the comments below.