70 year old Creativity Technique That Is Still Relevant Today

70 year old Creativity Technique That Is Still Relevant Today

Create May 16, 2013 / By Ben Weinlick
70 year old Creativity Technique That Is Still Relevant Today

An interesting 70 year old book is gaining popularity again in the creativity and innovation fields

What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced.

James Webb Young

Around the late 1930's, a creative Ad man named James Webb Young had a knock on his door from a manager who shared an epiphany that success in advertising comes from selling ideas not things. Despite the manager's insight, he had one problem, his team didn't know how to get ideas; they were stuck.  So, they came to the successful James Young for ideas on how to get ideas.  This encounter led to Young creating a little book called  A Technique for Producing Ideas. I recently came across it and was impressed to find some advice that is as relevant today as 70 years ago. I recommend you buy the book, but below I've picked out the key points you can use right away.

 If you ask me why I am willing to give away the valuable formula of this discovery, I will confide to you that experience has taught me two things about it: 

First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe it.

Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it. 


The first principle Young presents is the notion that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements. In other words, ideas are just remixes and combinations of old stuff.  This idea is popular again today maybe due in part to Kirby Ferguson's TED talk and great video series, Everything Is A Remix. 


The second principle is about what helps make new connections between old elements.  What fosters new connections is being able to see relationships between seemingly unrelated things.  Young recognizes that to some, seeing connections may come naturally and others may have to work at training it.

 To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities.



If we are trying to solve a problem, we need to learn everything about the challenge we are working on.  Here, Young  suggests something which sounds a lot like a principle of design thinking, where the person needs to get out of their office, and connect with people that are having the problem you are trying to find a creative solution to. In this phase we should be like curious explorers.


He also suggests that there is the lifelong job of gathering raw material for creativity by being interested and curious about many diverse hobbies and fields.  As Young says,

Every really creative person has two noticeable characteristics. First, there is no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from say Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Second, he is an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information.

 This browsing of diverse information comes in handy for eventually having a critical mass of raw material to combine in new ways.   Young suggests finding some kind of system for filing and categorizing cool ideas and stuff one finds as one explores.  Now, we are lucky with all the tools in the digital realm which help us gather snippets,  quotes, pictures and interesting things we find as we browse.  We may have the idea today that we are inundated with too much information, however the upside of this is that we have lots of raw material to draw from for problem solving.  



This is a tricky stage, where facts, ideas and raw material are looked at from many different angles and playful combinations are explored.  The creative person is trying to see relationships between the raw material one gathered.


Here a strange element comes in. This is that facts sometimes yield up their meaning quicker when you do not scan them too directly, too literally...When creative people are in this phase, they get a reputation for being absentminded. 

In this stage, half baked ideas will arise and Young suggests jotting them down right away no matter how crazy and impractical they may seem. After working a long time at this, usually a state of hopelessness will arise where everything will feel upside down, and there will be no clear insight anywhere. Young suggests this time of creative confusion is a sign one has worked hard enough and is ready for the next step.



Here, you take a break. Try not to keep thinking about the challenge you're working on.  Even though it may seem counterintuitive to what we've been taught in school, Young asserts that this stage of putting the problem out of your mind is just as important as the previous two stages. Today, in the world of exploring what fosters creativity, it continues to be recognized that we need a time of letting go; doing something totally different to allow for new connections in our brain to come together.

You remember how Sherlock Holmes used to stop right in the middle of a case and drag Watson off to a concert? That was a very irritating procedure to the practical and literal minded Watson. But Conan Doyle was a creator and knew the creative process 


If you have been truly disciplined in the first three stages of the process, Young says that you will likely experience the fourth.  The fourth is that often creative solutions will arise when we least expect them and often when doing totally unrelated activities.  As Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favours only the prepared mind."


This is the way ideas come: after you have stopped straining for them, and have passed through a period of rest and relaxation from the search.


In this stage you have to take your new idea out into the world and see if it is truly a good one.  Young recognizes that when you do take the idea out, you usually find that it is not quite as amazing as when it first arose. At this point, disciplined critique to ensure your idea fits with the criteria of the challenge you are working on is necessary. It's important here to share your idea with others and have them offer insight.  Young suggests that when you do ask for feedback you will find that a good idea has self-expanding qualities and can stimulate others to build on it. 

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to criticism of the judicious. 

Published on Think Jar Collective

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