We've all been there. In my line of work we call it writer’s block but it happens to everyone. Whether crafting a joke or a chord progression, working on a new magic trick or a way to balance the company budget, we’ve all been stuck on a problem we just can’t seem to solve. It’s frustrating. It sucks.
But sometimes all you need to do is play a game or two of ping pong.
I recently picked up a copy of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. As the title suggests, the book is an in-depth look at where creativity comes from using examples as diverse as Bob Dylan, Pixar's animators and the inventor of the Post-it note.
Lehrer stops short of suggesting that there is a formula or shortcut to creativity, but he does offer some great lessons he picked up along the way.
One such lesson: you can’t force creativity. In fact, sometimes the best thing you can do is just let go.
The book has countless stories of innovations that were born at the most random times. The Post-it note, for example, was invented by a paper salesman while daydreaming at church. He and his co-workers had been looking for a use for a very weak glue the company had developed. After weeks of frustration, his group had all but deemed the glue a useless invention.
During what the salesman remembered as a particularly boring sermon, he noticed that his bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal. Wouldn't it be great if those little bits of paper had the weak adhesive on them to keep them from slipping? Eureka! Post-it notes!
The salesman credits the innovation not to divine inspiration but to the fact that his mind was wandering aimlessly at just the right time. If he hadn’t been zoning out, we wouldn't have Post-it notes.
So that’s where ping pong comes in.
Today I was sitting at my desk in front of a blank page. I needed a blog post but what should I write about? I drank coffee. I organized my desk. I stared at the blank page. Nothing. Then a co-worker challenged me to a game of table tennis - a favorite break time activity here at GigMasters HQ. Sadly I lost (badly) but halfway through the game I had an idea: ‘I’ll write about ping pong!’
The point is that sometimes you need to take your mind off of the problem to find a solution.
I’ve noticed that many of my ideas come at what seem like the strangest times. I’ll be driving home, stepping out of the shower or lying down at night and inspiration will strike. That’s why I try to keep a pen and pad of paper nearby. Sometimes I use Post-it notes.
As Lehrer's book points out, many leading companies like 3M and Google have learned this important lesson about creativity and actually encourage their workers to take breaks. Steve Jobs was known for taking long walks to stir his creative juices. Who knows how many of the best features of our beloved devices came from Jobs’ strolls?
And it makes sense really. Which environment seems more conducive to creativity: your work cubicle or the great outdoors?
So next time you are stuck don’t beat your head against a wall. Take a break. Go on a walk. Read a book.
Or play ping pong.
UPDATE: Since this post was published a serious scandal has erupted around Image and Jonah Lehrer. It seems he made up some quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book. Bob Dylan! One of the most obsessed-over guys in recent history! Read more at The New York Times.