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How to generate ideas

One of the most valuable writing skills is the ability to generate novel ideas.

Last year, I stumbled into a mental model to achieve this at will.

I was watching a documentary on songwriter Ed Sheeran. In it, he described his songwriting process. It struck me as identical to the process that author Neil Gaiman detailed in his Masterclass.

Here's the thing.

Ed Sheeran and Neil Gaiman are in the top 0.000001% of their fields. They're among, say, 25 people in the world who consistently generate blockbuster after blockbuster.

If two world-class creators share the exact same creative process, I lean in.

I call their approach the Creativity Faucet:

Visualize your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile of piping is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.

Because your pipe only has one faucet, there's no shortcut to achieving clarity other than first emptying the wastewater.

Let's apply this to creativity: At the beginning of a writing session, you must write out every bad idea that reflexively comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting these bad ideas, you must openly accept them.

Once the bad ideas are emptied, strong ideas begin to arrive.

Here's why: Once you've generated enough bad output, your brain starts to reflexively identify which elements cause the badness. Then it begins to avoid them. You start pattern-matching novel ideas with greater intuition.

Most creators never get past their wastewater. They resist their bad ideas.

If you've opened a blank document, scribbled a few thoughts, then walked away because you weren't struck with gold, then you too didn't get past it.

Neil and Ed know they're not superhuman. They simply respect the reality of human creativity: The brain has a linear pipeline for creativity, and the pipe needs clearing. In every creative session, they allot time for emptying the wastewater.

They're not worrying whether clear water will eventually come. It always does:

Addendum: Here's an interview where Ed talks about this. And here's Neil Gaiman's reaction to this post.

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