Flow freely with divergent thinking

Blog Post | Jul 9th, 2021

The person who is capable of producing a large number of ideas per unit of time, other things being equal, has a greater chance of having significant ideas.
J. P. Guilford
American psychologist (1897-1987)

Nearly every time I sit down with the intention to write or come up with an idea, I find myself stuck with nothing to say. "What am I doing here?," I ask. "What could I possibly write about?"

"Why can't I think up any interesting ideas?"

Nearly everyone has been here. You're either tasked with an assignment or you have a strong desire to do some creative work on your own, but when you sit down to do the job you get nothing but a blinking cursor on an empty screen.

Writers call this phenomenon writer's block. Some artists call it "fear of the blank canvas." In essence, you're unable to produce new work or come up with new ideas. Your mind draws a blank.

From zero to many ideas -- Fast

What if I told you the most effective way to come up with one idea is to quickly come up with many ideas? Would you temporarily hang up your disbelief and give it a try? If you're ready now and need no further explanation, I encourage you to go straight to this exercise and come back when you're done. I'll explain the "why and how" of divergent thinkingdivergent thinking:
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when you get back.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is a thinking strategy and method for generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Basically, instead of seeking out that singular ideal topic, you open up to any possible idea - good or bad - and give yourself a time limit to list out all the possiblities you can imagine.

When time runs out, you should have a nice long list of options. Some will be bad. Really bad. It's okay. Hopefully, you'll have at least one idea you'd like to explore. If you don't, you can take a quick break and try it again.

But what do you do with all those ideas? Isn't that information overload? Won't having a long list of ideas somehow flood the system? What do you do with it all?

Convergent Thinking

Once you have your list, it's time to do some housework. Remember how you were supposed to list all your ideas, both good and bad? Here's how to go through that list.

  • Circle or highlight your best ideas
  • Scratch out or delete the ideas that aren't going to work. Let them go.
  • Make connections between related ideas. Have two similar ideas? Try to rephrase your thought by combining the two.
  • Elaborate on your best ideas. I like to immediately make a list of thoughts below each of my best ideas. Sometimes, I do this with another timed exercise. Other times, my mind is already flowing freely at this point and making new lists comes naturally.
One of the reasons people are reluctant to be creative, in general, is that if you try out an idea and it doesn't work, that is regarded as a mistake. Now, a big difficiency in language, certainly in the English language, is we don't have a word which says, "Fully justified venture, which for reasons beyond your control did not succeed." So, anything which did not succeed is called a mistake, and people don't like mistakes because that stands in the way of their promotion and their career.
Edward de Bono

If you're still stuck

Sometimes, we get ready to make a list, set the timer, and still struggle to crank out a list. If this is happening, try starting with a seed. A seed can be anything:

  • A photo or drawing
  • A memory
  • A provocotive quote
  • A question
  • Your own notes or CLOSAT Cards

Here are a few seeds to help get you started:

  • Pretend you're playing "Truth or Dare". Make a list of questions and dares you'd ask in the game.
  • Open a book to a random page with your eyes closed. Point to a spot on the page. Open your eyes and read the sentence below your finger. Don't read the whole page or paragraph. Take the sentence out of context and use it as a seed to write your own words.
  • Or, type the words from the above point into an "image search" in your browser. Quickly locate the most interesting image in the search. Your timed "idea generating exercise" is to pretend you are describing the image to a blind person. Be as descriptive as possible.

Alternative uses exercise

Pick an object at random. A paperclip, a #2 pencil, a tape dispenser, a tractor, a see-saw... it can be anything. Set the timer for one minute. Write down as many non-traditional uses for that object. For example, a paperclip might be used as a b-b-q skewer, a lock-picker, an ant hole tv antenna... relax, write out any and all ideas, suspend judgement, and let yourself get wild and creative.

Expand your brain with lateral thinking

We also use lateral thinking methods to generate ideas. After making your list, try connecting unrelated ideas. Some fantastic new concepts can be imagined by simply putting together two unrelated words, ideas, or images. Here's an example that seems to have worked okay: "Face" and "Book"

Share your ideas

Come up with a cool idea? Have a question about divergent thinking? Share it in the reddit here.

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Written by brian kerr
"Existentialism Is a Cyborgism"
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