January 12th, 2014 by David Butler
How an Idea is Born
A key component of success in today's changing world is the ability to adopt new ideas. But how do you have your own ideas? How do you create the fertile conditions in your mind to make it easier for you to conceive your own original ideas?
When you stop and think about all the new gadgets and ideas that have been changing the world lately, the world of even just five years ago is almost unrecognizable. So many smart people are coming up with so many smart ideas. The rest of us can hardly keep up. But where do these new ideas and inventions come from.
Cross-Pollination of Existing Ideas
Necessity is said to be the "mother of invention" But necessity can't do it on her own. New ideas usually arrive via cross-pollination of existing ideas.
Most explanations of the inventive process include a discussion of this cross-pollination of ideas, and explain that mixing ideas from different areas can lead to new inventions.
- Mixing professions (dentists using tiny x-ray cameras developed by space scientists).
- Mixing times (seeing how yesterday's solutions can be reapplied to today's problems).
- Mixing purposes (aspirin for headaches also being used to reduce heart attacks).
- Mixing cultures (using Eastern acupuncture in Western medicine)
But how do these ideas combine to produce their new offspring? What causes two particular ideas to come together in the first place to form new ideas?
Ideas are connected through the attributes they share.
Ideas are made of attributes which describe what these ideas mean. New ideas begin when two ideas are found to have a shared attribute. For example, here are a few connections that were brought together by their common attribute.
- Telephone + Library = Internet
- Telephone = Communicate Information
- Library = Stored Information
- Internet = Communicate Stored Information
- Desk + Monitor = Mouse
- Desk = Measurable X-Y Surface
- Monitor = Electronic X-Y Surface
- Mouse = Measurable Electronic X-Y Surface
- Truck + Rocket = Space Shuttle
- Truck = Reusable Transportation
- Rocket = Space Transportation
- Space Shuttle = Reusable Space Transportation
Each "parent" idea has several attributes, but it was the attributes they had in common that brought them together. The key to finding connections is to recognize more attributes in each idea to begin with; that is to think deeper about what ideas really mean.
For example, if you think of a telephone only as a way to communicate, and a library only as a place to store books, you are only looking at the surface of these ideas. But when you also think of them both as dealing with information… then you can see how they can be connected. The telephone communicates information, and the library stores information. Therefore you could use a telephone to communicate stored information.
Likewise, desks and monitors both have X-Y Surfaces, and trucks and rockets are both basically transportation devices.
Conception of an Idea
An idea's moment of conception is when the two common attributes come into contact. Bringing any two ideas together is not likely going to produce new ideas unless the two ideas have a healthy amount of attributes associated with them in order to increase their chance of hooking up. This means thinking conceptually about what ideas are made of.
The difference between shallow understanding, and deep conceptual understanding, is like the difference between a dictionary and encyclopedia; it's the difference between mere recognition and real comprehension.
Memorizing facts and definitions is a sterile perceptual form of learning, but thinking deeply about the many aspects of ideas is a fertile conceptual comprehension; the kind that supplies ideas with infinite possibilities for cross-pollination.
To have new ideas, first look deeper at the ideas you already have.
The Birth of an Idea
The actual birth of the idea is the engineering of the solution, where you push this new idea out into the real world. Seeing the connection gives you the glimmer of an idea, but now you have to actually do the work to bring it into existence.
Maybe you thought it would be useful to have a way to communicate a library of stored information over an electronic telephone system. If so, you would then have to figure out how to accomplish this. This is the nine-tenth "perspiration" part. The engineering process of developing ideas is often difficult and labor intensive.
But regardless of how hard it might be to develop your ideas, they are still only made possible by having a fertile imagination to begin with. And this fertility depends on thinking deeply about what you already think you know. A fertile imagination depends on having a healthy, inquisitive, questioning relationship with ideas.
Let's Make One Together
As an example to get you started, let's create an idea right now. We'll start with one idea: flashcards.
We know what flashcards are. But what are they really? What are all the things we know about them?
- Something that is flashed
- Concealed answers
- Testing device
- Memorizing tool
Now where can we find a mate for this idea? What other things can we think of that share any of these attributes? There are other small things, other types of cards, other things that are flashed, other things made of cardboard, etc.
Here's something with some shared attributes: lottery tickets.
- Gambling device
- Concealed answers
Did you notice there are already three attributes in common?
- Concealed answers
New idea: Why not make scratch-off flashcards? The card would present a question and scratching off the correct answer would reward the student with "You Win!" I like it. Maybe I'll do the engineering and deliver this idea in a future blog post.
For now though, I hope you see how this works. To develop a more fertile imagination, think conceptually about what things really mean; not just what they are but what they do, what they accomplish, what they are made of… basically the essence of ideas. Good luck and may you be surrounded with many bright new ideas.