April 2006

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What is an Idea?

What is an idea? If you remember only one thing I’ve said, remember that an idea is a
feat of association.” -Robert Frost


Before we figure out how to get ideas we must discuss what ideas are, for if we don’t know what things are, it’s difficult to figure out how to get more of them.

The only trouble is: How do you define an idea?

A. E. Housman said: “I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but both of us recognize the object by the symptoms which it produces in us.” Beauty is like that too. So are things like quality and love. And so, of course, is an idea. When we’re in the presence of one we know it, we feel it; something inside us recognizes it. But just try to define one.

Look in dictionaries and you’ll find everything from: “That which exists in the mind, potentially or actually, as a product of mental activity, such as a thought or knowledge,” to “The highest category: the complete and final product of reason,” to “A transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations.”

The difficulty of defining "idea" is stated perfectly by Marvin Minsky in The Society of Mind: “Only in logic and mathematics do definitions ever capture concepts perfectly.... You can know what a tiger is without defining it. You may define a tiger, yet know scarcely anything about it.” The definition that I like the best, though, is this one from James Webb Young:

"An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."

There are two reasons I like it so much. First, it practically tells you how to get an idea for it says that getting an idea is like creating a recipe for a new dish. All you have to do is take some ingredients you already know about and combine them in a new way. It’s as simple as that.

Ordinary people get good ideas everyday. Everyday they create and invent and discover things. Everyday they figure out different ways to repair cars and sinks and doors, to fix dinners, to increase sales, to save money, to teach their children, to reduce costs, to increase production, to write memos and proposals, to make things better or easier or cheaper-the list goes on and on.

Second, I like it because it zeros in on what I believe is the key to getting ideas, namely, combining things. Indeed, everything I’ve ever read about ideas talks about combining or linkage or juxtaposition or synthesis or association. “It is obvious,” wrote Hadaniard, “that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas.... The Latin verb cogito, for ‘to think,’ etymologically means ‘to shake together.’ St. Augustine had already noticed that and had observed that intelligo means ‘to select among.’”

“A man becomes creative,” wrote J. Bronowski, "whether he is an artist or a scientist, when he finds new unity in the variety of nature. He does so by finding a likeness between things which were not thought alike before....The creative mind is a mind that looks for unexpected likenesses.”

Or Francis H. Cartier: “There is only one way in which a person acquires a new idea: by the combination or association of two or more ideas he already has into a new juxtaposition in such a manner as to discover a relationship among them of which he was not previously aware.”

And Arthur Koestler wrote an entire book, The Act of Creation, based on “the thesis that creative originality does not mean creating or originating a system of ideas out of nothing but rather out of a combination of well established patterns of thought-by a process of cross-fertilization.” Koestler calls this process “bisociation.” “The creative act,” he explains, “...uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.”

“Feats of association,” “unexpected likenesses,” “new wholes,” “shake together” then “select among,” “new juxtapositions,” “bisociations“ - however they phrase it, they’re all saying pretty much what James Webb Young said:

"An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements."

How to get Ideas - Jack Foster

How to Kill One

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke or worried to death by a frown on the right person's brow." -Charles Brower

By far the biggest killer phrase in creativity is the phrase “this is the same as”. This is much worse a response than saying that the idea is absurd, nonsense or impossible. The phrase “the same as ...” means that the idea is not new and therefore need not be discussed at all. What happens is that some part of the proposed new idea triggers an already known idea in the mind of the listener who refuses to listen any more.

I Am Right, You Are Wrong - Edward de Bono

Earlobe Museum

“An elephant is a mouse built to government specifications.” -Lazarus Long

Sparks of creativity often flow from new knowledge. Frequently it's information about things that are completely new to you. Sometimes, it's new facts about familiar things. And sometimes it's information about things that you didn't know you didn't know. This last category, usually filled with items that are silly and fanciful, can provide a platform for your imagination to jump from.

So here I present the: "Things you didn't know you didn't know" section.
(or the alternately titled: "Trivia to win bar bets" section).

Do Earlobes Serve Any Particular or Discernible Function?

Our authorities answered as one: Yes, earlobes do serve a particular function. They are an ideal place to hang earrings.

Oh sure, there are theories. Ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Ben Jenkins of Kingsland, Georgia, remembers reading about a speculation that when our predecessors walked on four feet, our earlobes were larger "and that they fell inward to protect the ear canal." Biologist John F. Hertner recounts another anthropological theory: that earlobes served as "an ornament of interest in sexual selection."

Doctors and biologists we confront with questions like these about seemingly unimportant anatomical features are quick to shrug their shoulders. They are quite comfortable with the notion that not every organ in our body is essential to our wellbeing and not every obsolete feature of our anatomy is eliminated as soon as it becomes unnecessary.

Actually, the opposite is closer to the truth. Anatomical features of earlier humankind tend to stick around unless they are an obvious detriment. As Professor Hertner puts it, nature tends to conserve genetic information unless there is selection pressure against a particular feature. Our bodies serve in some respect as museums of our evolutionary heritage.

Do Penguins Have Kneesan imponderables book
David Feldman

Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa ©Lorne Resnick

Lake Manyara, Tanzania, Africa
©Lorne Resnick