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How to be creative in one hour

Creativity & Innovation

It’s amazing how many creativity books it is possible to buy. I must own at least 25 – and have another 100 queued up on an Amazon wishlist. Granted, not all of them are purely about creativity, but it’s a subject with so many influences that it can sometimes be difficult to know where to stop.

So – if you’d like to learn more about how to be creative but don’t want to trawl through a hundred books, you’ll be glad to hear that there is one that captures the essence extremely well – and it can be read in just an hour.

James Webb Young wrote A Technique for Producing Ideas back in 1939. An advertising executive, he tells the tale of a sales exec bursting into his office one day and asking for the secret to having great ideas. Stumped for a definite answer, Young began to think about his own recommendations on how to be creative in business.

He first establishes two principles: that an idea is a new combination, and that the ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships. He then distils the creative process down into five steps.

1. Gather raw material

It is worth quoting a passage here:

A real knowledge of a product, and of people in relation to it, is not easy to come by. Getting it is something like the process which was recommended to De Maupassant as the way to learn to write. ‘Go out into the streets of Paris,’ he was told by an older writer, ‘and pick out a cab driver. He will look to you very much like every other cab driver. But study him until you can describe him so that he is seen in your description to be an individual, different from every other cab driver in the world.’ This is the real meaning of that trite talk about getting an intimated knowledge of the product and its consumers. Most of us stop too soon in the process of getting it. If the surface differences are not striking we assume that there are no differences. But if we go deeply enough, or far enough, we nearly always find that between every product and some consumers there is an individuality of relationship which may lead to an idea.

Once a thorough understanding is gained of the issue at hand, Young recommends further gathering – this time of general material. A states that a true creative person must be interested in anything and everything, in order to bring together “fugitive material which can be grist to the idea-producer’s mill”. Whilst the first kind of gathering is a current job, the second kind is a life’s work.

2. Look for relationships

Assuming that you have done “a workmanlike job of gathering material”, next comes “the process of masticating these materials, as you would food that you are preparing for digestion”. Take all the materials and information you have gathered, and:

feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

3. The mental digestive process

The next stage? Do something else. This might mean watching a concert, reading a book, taking a walk, or going to sleep. The process enters the domain of the unconscious mind.

4. The idea appears

Young predicts that, if you have followed every stage fully so far, you will surely experience the fourth stage.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it – while shaving, or bathing or most often when are half awake, in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night. 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.

5. Shaping and development

Webb calls this “the cold, grey dawn of the morning after”. This is when you have to see what others think, shape and tailor it to requirements.

And that’s it – I’ve done my best to provide an overview here but would recommend you buy the book and refer to it whenever you feel your creative process needs a refresh. The theories and ins and outs of creativity can take a lifetime to master, but it’s reassuring to know that there’s a book out there that tells you the bones of what you need to do in no more than an hour.

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