Finding ways to inspire yourself

In almost any creative pursuit, whether it’s your job, your hobby, your side project or even a task that you might be working on, I find that it’s helpful to identify ways in which you can continue to keep getting fresh ideas, ways in which you can inspire yourself.

In the book “Where good ideas come from” by Steven Johnson, Steven talks about the concept of the “Adjacent Possible“. He takes the analogy of evolution, and talks about how evolution is a continual exploration of the adjacent possible. Changes are not conjured up out of thin air, they are in fact building on top of what already exists. “The shadow future exists on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet, it is not an infinite space or a totally open playing field. The number of potential first order reactions is vast, yet it is still a finite number.

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson

In the same way, Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air, they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands and occasionally contracts over time. He therefore says that the trick to getting new ideas, is to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment that you work in, or cultivating a special kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information. The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.

Paraphrased from Where good ideas come from, Steven Johnson

I strongly believe in this. Exposing yourself to new things has a compounding effect over time, and can be a great way to keep your creative spirit alive. I’m not great at this myself, but here are a few things that I’ve found helpful in inspiring me:

  1. Reading: This is probably not a big surprise. I love books and books give you a window into so many different worlds. A great listen on how to read, is this discussion with Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe (listen from minute 66 onwards). Patrick talks about how reading should be an active and intentional process. Instead of feeling any compulsion to read the latest books or popular books or any such thing, you should read books that are the best in the world, for you. Actively discard books that you’re reading, if another better book comes along. Underline things that stand out for you, take notes in the margins, and revisit books if you find yourself recalling something mentioned in a specific book. Think about reading as an active process of knowledge acquisition! I often find that it’s best to think about book selection in terms of what mindset you’re in, and what type of problems you might be facing. For eg: if you’re feeling low, find a book that’ll lift your spirits. Or if you’re trying to start a business, read biographies of those who’ve done this successfully. This way, books you read end up having the most impact on you.

2. Listening to podcasts: Podcasts are such an amazing way to learn about new things, and make use of otherwise “dead time”. If I’m emptying the dishwasher, or cooking something, or working out, there’s nothing else to do during that time anyway and podcasts are a great way to use this time. You don’t have to force yourself to listen to podcasts that are popular but not to your taste. Similar to reading, search for things that are interesting to you and be open to trying out new podcasts! Here are a few that I listen to on a regular basis:

3. Looking at the creations of the artists you admire: You can never know how and where your next idea can come from. Exposing yourself to how other artists have approached their work, how they solve problems, what inspires them, is a great way to expand your own horizons. You can do this by going for exhibitions, visiting stores, and of course, looking at their work online! People you admire don’t have to be from your own field, they can come from anywhere.

4. Getting some exercise and physical activity into your routine: The number of positive benefits of exercise really seem to be countless. No matter how much you do not feel like working out, when you actually do end up working out, there’s no way it does not help you feel better. So many times this has happened to me that I’ll think of something new or a long forgotten to-do item, while I’m working out. Even 10 mins can make a difference.

5. Waking up early in the morning: I’m still a bit conflicted on this one. I’ve always had the habit of working late into the night, and waking up late the next day. I also know that on the days that I do wake up early in the morning, I feel amazing. The quality of work that I do early in the morning is invariably better than what I do late at night. I’m unsure whether my habit of working late at night is a product of procrastination, or some anxiety driven thing of trying to finish everything before going to bed, or truly a natural inclination to work late at night. If I’ve to pick one though, I think early mornings are the best time to get your most creative work done.

6. Drinking coffee: This external stimulant does something wonderful to your brain. The jury is out on how healthy coffee is for you. I for one find coffee one of the best discoveries of humankind 🙂

7. Doing something else: This likely sounds counter-intuitive. But I find that having multiple creative pursuits or parallel projects going on, can work to the benefit of each of the projects, vs working on a single project only. If I’m having a bad day on one of them, or I get stuck in one of them, I can simply switch gears to a different project. If one of the projects is not going well, my life doesn’t have to stop. I can simply focus on other other projects. In my case, I do book binding, I have a career newsletter, and of course, I have my full time job!

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