The three ingredients of an idea

Legend tells us…

A young Isaac Newton was sitting quietly in his garden when an errant apple fell from a tree above, striking his head. Shocked (and presumably a bit sore), Newton found that he also found himself in possession of the idea of the Universal Law of Gravitation. This law was that any two objects feel a gravitational force towards each other related to their masses and the distance of separation, presumably explaining why the apple hit his head as hard as it did.

Unfortunately, the bit about being struck on the head is fabricated, but the rest of the story is basically true. (And here in Melbourne, there’s an apple tree grown from a cutting taken from Newton’s tree, which I think is pretty cool.) Still, in this story I find the three basic ingredients that I’ve also always found whenever I’ve had a good idea: (1) deep knowledge of a domain, (2) a reflective state of mind, and (3) a trigger.

Ideas may also be called discoveries or inventions, but all are open to being tackled with this same process. Essentially, it is about finding a solution to a known problem.

Deep Knowledge of a Domain

The first part of having deep knowledge is having a grip on what that problem is, but it is also important to know why previous solutions didn’t work. According to Wikipedia’s article on benzene, German chemist Kekule  had the idea that the benzene molecule is arranged in a ring after “years of studying the nature of carbon-carbon bonds” and was a thought-leader in the field, having solved previous carbon bonding questions earlier.

While cramming is generally considered to be a poor study technique, I’ve found it consistently very helpful in exams. One benefit for me is that going into an exam with a deep background in the topic allows me to adapt to the questions on the fly and occasionally come up with a cunning answer.

Reflective State of Mind

The next ingredient is being in the right mental state for the idea to occur. For me, it could be in the shower, at the train stop, or even just before nodding off. In general, I am not doing anything mentally demanding, but waiting for something to happen.

The archetypal example here is that of Archimedes, who realised how to measure the volume of an irregular shape – a crown – when he was relaxing in a bath. In his excitement, he ran from the bath naked, shouting “Eureka!”

This sort of relaxing-in-the-tub, contemplative state is typically not what is produced in a traditional brainstorming workshop, with participants encouraged to shout out ideas as they occur to them. Or, for that matter, in answering a problem-solving question in a job interview. That said, a reflective state of mind doesn’t need to be a meditative state of mind.

I’ve found that in practice, a reflective state of mind can be assumed at will. Perhaps I get practice at this as part of my job, but in most conversations that I have with people, I am looking out for something surprising that doesn’t fit my mental model of the world. I am always looking to be pleasantly disrupted.

A Trigger

I sat on this post for several weeks because I’d initially written this part as “an external trigger” but it wasn’t sitting right with me. External triggers are the stuff of inspiration legend, something external to the problem domain that triggers thinking in the right direction. But another type of trigger is important too.

I don’t mean chocolate, although I do find this very helpful. I’m thinking of thoughts triggered through the application of methodical process, a problem-solving technique, or creative framing/structuring of the problem. These approaches tend to be learned over time, and most people probably have several trusty ones in their problem-solving kit bag. I don’t remember being taught these things formally, but I have adopted some that I liked from seeing their use by experienced people in a field. I’ll call these process triggers, for want of a name, and they can be replicated and re-used. Recently, I used a scenario planning approach to identify an idea for a new service at work.

Compared with process triggers, it is probably impossible to replicate successful external triggers. In the previous examples, it was Newton’s apple falling, Kekule thinking of the symbol of a snake biting its tail (hence the ring of benzene), or Archimedes overflow of bath water. Other people grappling with other problems would likely not find these helpful at all.

However, both types of triggers overcome a problem inherent in having deep domain knowledge – that of being locked within the universe of previous thinking on a topic. A example of an everyday trigger for me was recently when I was listening to a radio interview of someone explaining the evolution of printed media. I was previously trying to identify an appropriate analogy for the evolution of telephony, and wanted something that would go beyond a VoIP story. As the interview progressed, I suddenly realised that the story of print is what I needed.


The ingredients needed to come up with ideas are developing deep domain knowledge, adopting a reflective mental state, and finding a good trigger. Perhaps there’s nothing earth-shattering here, but I’ve found it useful to write it out and convince myself that this makes sense.

While the ingredients are identified here, the trigger may very well not be under personal control, and there may be no useful idea to add to a domain, so it’s not likely to form the basis for a scientifically testable hypothesis. Doing some more work to find ways  to maximise the chance of an external trigger occurring would be valuable, though. Until then, I’ll just have to rely on chocolate.


4 thoughts on “The three ingredients of an idea”

  1. There’s a lot of chatter about Ingredient 2 recently. Specifically that we’re impeding it, obviously.

    I’ll ignore the obvious things about email, internet, social media, which have already been hammered to death (rightly, I imagine).
    More interestingly I heard a guy called Jason Fried interviewed on CBC’s Spark about general workplace organization. He claims offices are _too_ interactive and proposes companies institute a day a week when no-one is allowed to talk to each other. Was pretty convincing.

    We’re pretty lucky in academia, that solitude is respected. But scarily I heard someone recently promoting open-plan offices for universities to “increase exchange of ideas”. I cannot imagine anything that would be more destructive to my creativity.

    1. Having read his ReWork, I’m a little sceptical of Jason Fried. He makes some bizarre claims in his TED talk on this subject, too. However, I can agree that interruptions impair the creative act.

      That said, interactions with other people are one of the ways I find triggers for new ideas. The most efficient way to arrange these interactions for work ideas is to place everyone together at the same site. In Isaacson’s bio of Steve Jobs, the head guy at Pixar was quoted as saying their new offices were designed to maximize interactions between people and that it was the most creative place he’d ever worked.

      A blanket rule that people shouldn’t talk to each other for a given period is probably an instrument that is too blunt. However, having a way to indicate to others that a person doesn’t want to be interrupted may be sufficient, e.g. give them the ability to close a door.

      1. Right, well you’re obviously better informed than I am. I’d forgotten he was the ReWork guy, and that you gave the book a lukewarm review.

        As for interactions, I think the balance must be very industry dependent. (And research mathematics is surely at the utmost extreme of the solitude spectrum.) Not to mention the personality.

        But what I can attest from my own experience is that both interaction and solitude are essential to ideas. My most productive periods are when I have an academic visitor. This means plenty of planned interaction as well as lunching, coffeeing, beering.
        But even during these visits I need to stagger the interaction with solitude or I never really probe the germinating ideas.

        If the solitude is restricted to what is labelled “down-time” (shower, train-stop or bed, as you put it) then I think that’s dangerous. My productivity has improved since I’ve forced/permitted myself to be bored at work — ie, not filling all my breaks with busy work, email, admin.

        Interaction gets heaps of focus these days, but solitude very little.

      2. Good point about balance being industry dependent, and perhaps it’s dependent on the individuals as well (eg. introvert vs extrovert). There’s a senior guy at work who has a “no meetings in the morning” rule to help keep his preferred level of balance.

        While “old school” mechanisms like offices with doors help with all this, I’ve experienced newer approaches that allowed focus even in dense, open-plan enviroments. It initially required some practice at just focussing on a screen and zoning out the rest, but the office etiquette at this place was to communicate with others (even those sharing your desk) via instant messaging. This meant that interactions were under the control of each party involved, rather than just the interrupting one. If you were “in the zone”, you could ignore the IM til it was convenient, but if you were doing something interruptible, it was easy to reply. On the other hand, walking up to someone and talking to them was considered a bit odd.

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