It is a problem many of us have faced, often, and to our frustration. You are asked to come up with an idea, for a project, story, research study, or a product. All of a sudden, your mind goes blank. That space where multiple thoughts normally jostle for attention is now completely still; it feels empty.
Last week, a student asked me whether, in this age of information overload and content proliferation, it is even possible to come up with original ideas. The fact that there is so much material out there, from so many different points of view and on practically every subject under the sun, makes it extremely difficult to find unexplored territory. But note, difficult is not the same as impossible.
Let us turn this around a bit. When you are asked to come up with an idea, what exactly is expected? Most of the time (unless you are working in the startup space or in fundamental research) you are not being asked to come up with something completely new or ground-breaking (if you actually do, that is a huge bonus). You are being asked to draw on your own intellectual resources and experience to arrive at a workable concept for that project/story/study. And this may not be unique, but it has an element of uniqueness in that it comes from a perspective that is yours alone. But that is just the start. Then, you have to go about linking this idea with the larger world and seeing how it might be interpreted or fleshed out. Think about it like placing an object on a table and examining it from different angles, checking to see how it does in different kinds of light and under different conditions. You must end up finding a particular vantage point that no one (that you have come across) has dealt with. Are there unexpected or odd connections that you can find between this idea and older concepts?
It is well known that good ideas come to prepared minds. Preparation is about exposing oneself to a lot of good material in any form — fiction, art, information, news — and keeping your mind open to the possibility of relevance. All exposure has the potential to spark connections between seemingly unrelated things. But again, it doesn’t stop there. You need to play with the ideas and play with the connections. Remember that object on the table? Now flip that around, see how it works when placed alongside other ideas and information you have access to.
Ideas don’t emerge fully formed. They need to be seeded, nurtured, shaped and pruned before they gain shape. It is in each of these stages that your own effort, the richness of your thinking, turns it into something you can claim as yours.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. email@example.com