To Get Good Ideas You Have To Empty The Bad Ones First

Creativity it’s not for everyone, right? Wrong. Everyone is creative to some degree, it does comes natural to some people more than others. But even the people who are extremely creative have their roadblocks, and their methods to overcoming them; we can all learn from them.

Whether it’s taking time away from thinking about the problem to let the mind wander, to being more deliberate about it, to generating a bunch of ideas and seeing what sticks. Think about the people who write books, movie scripts, songs, most go through iterations of an initial idea; the key is they didn’t stop at the first idea that came to mind.

Creativity is about divergence, that means coming up with many ideas that will most likely be bad at the beginning before converging on the new ones. And that is what all creative people have in common.

How to best approach creative idea generation

To put this principle into context, consider that creativity means new, better and / or different from what it is. With that said, this is the principle: Before you get to the good ideas you have to empty the obvious / bad ones first.

Here’s a very simple exercise to test this out, the 30 Circles Test:

30 circles test

Here’s what you do: Grab a sheet of printer paper and draw 30 circles, like on the image above. Next, setup a 3 minute timer and draw all the things that come to mind that are like circles.

For example, tires, rims, Sun, flower, Moon, bottle caps, clock…you get the idea.

tim brown ted talk 2008

Most people come up with 10 – 15 ideas in those 3 minutes. Most of these ideas are obvious because they are things most people “know” without having to think too much. Obvious ideas aren’t necessarily bad, they’re just obvious and anyone can come up with them; that’s not good for creativity.

In this exercise you also have to consider whether you followed the rules or broke them. For example, I once had a woman draw a car by connecting some of the circles. And had another woman draw a boom box by connecting circles. They didn’t follow the rules!

For creativity you want different, and that means going beyond the obvious stuff.

Now apply the same method to writing, problem solving or any other activity that requires a creative solution:

  • Grab a sheet of paper;
  • Write down your challenge at the top of the page;
  • Write down every idea that comes to mind on how you might solve that challenge;
  • Resist the temptation to be critical of those ideas;
  • Recognize bad ideas as progress.

That’s it!

Bottom line: Before we get good ideas we have to empty the bad ones first. To do this, we have to recognize bad ideas as progress. Once the bad ideas are emptied, better ideas begin to arrive.

Also published on Medium.