The Creative Process

How does creativity happen?

Creativity can’t be planned. All we can do is create the right conditions for it to emerge. We feed creativity by making things; we feed the imagination through curiosity.

Creativity is like farming — it must be cultivated.

Metaphors everywhere: Churn the soil; Water the plants; Remove the weeds; Seeds take time to grow; Garbage in — Garbage out; Inhabit the right environment; Work harmoniously with nature.

Creativity grows with the ability to see relationships between ideas. Most people think of facts as separate bits of unconnected knowledge. But creative people see chains of knowledge.

Walter Isaacson was once asked about the theme of his biographies. He said: “People who are interested in the widest variety of things tend to see the patterns of nature in ways that make them creative.”

Continuous, open-ended learning compounds.

The world is like a kaleidoscope. And the mind is a pattern-making machine. Context switching is gasoline for the creative mind. Look at ideas in different “lighting.” New ideas will come together in neat combinations — like a jig-saw puzzle.  

Remember the famous scrapbooks from Sherlock Holmes? His secret to success was all the time he spent indexing and cross-referencing odd bits of material.

Creativity happens when we make new combinations from old elements. As we get more and more raw material, it gets easier to produce new and striking ideas.

After a period of intense thinking, ideas will feel like a jumble in your mind with no clear insight. When this happens, rest and relax. Stimulate your emotions and imagination. Let the subconscious mind work its magic.

Creative ideas don’t come when you’re focusing narrowly on them. Instead, they leap into our minds after intense periods of contemplation.

Follow the 3 Bs of Creativity:

1. Bed (nap and dream)

2. Bath (relax and let the subconscious mind work its magic)

3. Bus (travel, move, and escape routine)

Here’s why this works: The unconscious mind transcends rationality.

Intuition has a much higher bandwidth than your conscious thought. Our intuitive mind learns, and responds, even without our conscious awareness.

Human creativity is boundless. “On a daily basis, 15 percent of searches — 500 million — have never been seen before by Google’s search engine, and that has continued for 15+ years”

Creativity is strange and difficult. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Spend that time gathering raw material instead. Collect data, experiences, and observations. Then, start creating consistently. You have to show up before inspiration will.

Isaac Newton developed the concept of gravity in 1666. Newton’s discovery came from 20 years of studying: algebra, euclidean geometry, and cartesian coordinates. He also invented calculus to measure planetary orbits and the area under a curve.

A secret trick: generate ideas by collecting words. Words are symbols of ideas. When we master new words, we have new ideas.

Once you have a good idea, take your little newborn out into the world. But new ideas are fragile and this is where many good ideas are lost. Don’t make the mistake of keeping your idea secret. 

Creativity is an ongoing, iterative process. Submit it to criticism. A surprising thing will happen. Good ideas have self-expanding qualities. They stimulate people who hear them and inspire people to add to them. In turn, possibilities you’ve overlooked with come to light.

Here’s the 5-step process for producing ideas:

1. Gather raw material.

2. Work over them in your mind.

3. Let the tentacles of the mind perform their magic.

4. Have a “Eureka moment.

5. Shape and develop your idea — make it useful.


  1. A Technique for Producing Ideas,” by James Webb Young. Thanks to @patrick_oshag for the book recommendation.
  2. @vgr
  3. @fortelabs
  4. @scottbelsky
  5. @EricJorgenson
  6. @IAmAdamRobinson