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The Inner River: How to Get Our Ideas Flowing

Creative ideas are gaining importance in a changing world. Only those who are able to take new paths can overcome the ever-changing challenges of our time. The question is, how do we come up with creative ideas.

Personally, I find the metaphor helpful that in order to come up with ideas, we first need to get our inner river flowing. We achieve this by ensuring a steady influx of impressions, freeing the river from resistances, and creating a space for our creativity to flow into.

Reading time: 5 min.
Author: Tobias Rebscher
Foto: ByCh3lo 🔗

What Is Considered Creative?

There is no uniform definition of creativity. However, there is a general consensus that through creativity, we create something valuable that does not yet exist. The valuable thing can be of a material nature, but it can also simply be that the creative expression brings us joy and well-being - which is indeed very "valuable" (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2014; Runco & Jaeger, 2012; Simonton, 2012).

Example: I rearrange our apartment and follow an impulse to move the bed into the hallway. When my partner comes home, she can hardly open the door. "So? Creative, right?" I ask. "Definitely new, but hardly practical!" she exclaims, slightly annoyed, and throws herself against the door. "And if I move everything back to how it was?" I ask uncertainly. "That wouldn't be new at all. Just rearrange in a way that makes sense. That would be truly creative!"

Which Ideas We Keep to Ourselves 

If I understand my partner correctly in this situation, she would have preferred it if I hadn't implemented my idea of moving the bed into the hallway. In other words, she would have liked a stronger intervention from my Executive-Control Networks (ECN) in the brain, which is responsible for holding back ideas. 

Why do we withhold some ideas and not others? The neuroscientific "Twofold Model" by Kleinmitz & Co (2019) provides insight. According to this model, we evaluate ideas in two steps: 

  1. First, we unconsciously assess the value of ideas, with emotions and motivation playing an important role.
  2. Then, we consciously evaluate the ideas for their novelty.

If we do not perceive ideas as new and valuable, we are more likely to hold them back, as we fear the risk of being ridiculed. There is a lot at stake, especially at work - not least our reputation and our self-worth. The problem is that initially, we have difficulty assessing the value of ideas (Rietzschel et al., 2010). Ideas are like diamonds: it is only when they are polished that we can recognise how valuable they actually are (Catmull, 2014). 

The Relationship Between Creativity and Evil

In very young children, the inner river pours into the world unimpeded. They express their emotions without censoring them. In education, they learn that they must restrain themselves in society - otherwise, they experience consequences. In the words of Kant: "The freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of the other begins." In the context of creativity, this is relevant because by inhibiting parts of our nature - as important as that may be for our social coexistence - we simultaneously inhibit parts of our creative expression.

The motive not to hold back anymore and to freely express one's own nature can be found in many stories - usually when it comes to the temptation of evil. "We've all got both light and dark inside of us," Sirius explains to his godson Harry, who struggles with whether he might actually be evil. "What matters is the part we choose to act on."

Evil promises to liberate us. When we no longer restrain our nature, we can unleash our power. Kylo Ren tries to convince Rey of his cause: "The dark side is in our nature. Surrender to it." Moash from the "Stormlight Archive" has also found redemption: "I feel no guilt. I've given it away, and in so doing became the person I could always have become - if I hadn't been restrained." Kaladin gives him civilized criticism: "You've become a monster."

Evil characters are never simply evil. They feel the freedom and power that comes with breaking free from societal constraints. By ceasing to restrain their nature, they can finally do and be what they naturally desire. Against this background, it is understandable why a small yet significant relationship between creativity and Nazism, as well as between creativity and Machiavellism, could exist (Lebuda et al., 2021): Those who are less easily restrained can express themselves more freely.

The extent to which we must restrain our nature and thus our creative expression to be accepted as part of society depends on the society itself. Deviations from the norm are more skeptically viewed in conservative milieus, as there is a high value placed on preservation. Progressive milieus are more accepting of new paths, which can benefit creativity and innovation (Carney et al., 2008; Sibley et al., 2012). In authoritarian structures, on the other hand, attempts are made to completely suppress deviations (Altemeyer, 1996; Butler, 2009).

Scientifically, there is clear evidence that conventionalism as well as certain facets of conscientiousness harm our creativity (Feist, 1998; Reiter-Palmon et al., 2009). The reverse is also supported by studies: Curiosity (the thirst for novelty) and a high openness to new experiences have a positive impact on our creativity (da Costa et al., 2015, Schutte & Malouf, 2019).

How to Get our Ideas Flowing Again 

Using the metaphor of the inner river, we can identify three points of intervention to strengthen the free flow of our ideas: 

  1. Before the dam, by ensuring that the river has enough water.
  2. After the dam, by creating a space where the water can flow freely.
  3. At the dam, by minimising the amount of water being held back.

We can strengthen the first point by, for example, remaining open to new experiences and exposing ourselves to diverse information. The second point can be achieved by creating a protected place for our creativity, both in terms of time and location, and by limiting the unlimited possibilities of creativity, for example, through the use of deadlines (Heath & Heath, 2013). Convergent thinking, which focuses on a specific idea (Cropley, 2010), also aligns with this point of the metaphor, such as a straightened riverbed. Additionally, tools and techniques of productivity can foster creativity, which I will discuss further in my article "My Second Brain." 

On the other hand, dismantling the resistances of our dam, the third point, often presents a challenge. In his book The War of Art (2002), Steven Pressfield suggests that in order to overcome our resistances, we must find a way to deal with our fears. There is also scientific evidence that fears inhibit creativity (Adams, 2019; Baas et al., 2008). Using the metaphor of the inner river, this becomes understandable: If fears are the substance of the dam, then they inhibit our natural expression. 

For example, instead of taking the risk of failing to live up to our successful debut novel with our own book, we choose to not write anything at all. The fear of not living up to the first work "resists" our impulse to publish a second book. Similarly, Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee may have experienced something similar, as she never published another book after her masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird

How to Open the "Damn" Dam 

But how do we overcome our fears? How do we remove inhibitions and resistance from our path? How can we stop feeling ashamed of what we do - because behind it all are essentially social fears (Brown, 2007). The metaphor of the inner river gives us two important hints for this: 

  1. Fears don't have to have power over us. We may feel blocked, but in truth, it is us who are blocking (Godin, 2020; Pressfield, 2002).
  2. Our fears and resistance don't mean us harm. With their help, we try to protect ourselves from negative consequences (Brown, 2007; Hollis, 2005).

It is understandable why it is not sensible to fight against resistance. Our resistance is not our enemy. By fighting against our ally, we only reinforce our fears - and thus also our resistance - as emphasised by author Elizabeth Gilbert (2016), business consultant Peter Block (2011), or stoic philosopher Ryan Holiday (2021). Instead, we should give our fears a chance and recognise that we do not need them (anymore). Entrepreneur Tim Ferris (2011) has, for example, developed his "Fear Setting Exercise" for this purpose. 

If we cannot succeed in this because the resistance is too strong, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can provide important guidance: According to these approaches, we must first make friends with our fears in order to let them go (Riggenbach, 2021; Orsillo & Roemer, 2012). Our fears want to protect us. We can be grateful for that. If we perceive, accept, and gently show them that they are unfounded, they will let go of us - also because we feel safe in this process (Brach, 2020). 

By dismantling our fears, our ideas can flow more freely again, and with a greater number of ideas, the probability of truly creative ideas also increases (Adams, 2019; Osborn, 1963). So, it makes sense to initially focus on the free flow of ideas. The evaluation of ideas then takes place in a second step. 

However, it would be a mistake to believe that we have to completely eliminate our fears before we can be creative at all. On the contrary, fears are an integral part of creative processes. If we should no longer have any fear at some point, this is a reliable sign that we are actually not being creative but taking well-trodden paths (Pressfield, 2002). Moreover, fears can also inspire our creative expression, as is evident in artists like Käthe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo, or Edvard Munch. 

And What to Do with My Bed Now? 

Back to my rearranging action, where at the beginning of the article I followed my intuition and placed the bed in the hallway. Before I start directly next time, I could definitely first determine requirements, draw sketches, cut up the sketches and reassemble them... 

I could do that, but I wouldn't. When circumstances allow us to experiment without fear and risk, it is especially valuable to do so. This also includes giving absurd ideas a chance. Only then can we truly find new valuable paths; only then can we surprise ourselves and open ourselves up to what is still possible. 

And indeed: Already on our first night in the hallway, from this new perspective, we could see - through a small crack in the kitchen window about 400 light-years away - how a sparkling star was born. 

First Steps

In order for our inner river to flow freely, we need to ensure a steady influx. We can achieve this, for example, by remaining curious, being open to new experiences, continually challenging ourselves, and surrounding ourselves with inspiring people (Amabile, 2012; Schutte & Malouf, 2019).

If we want to overcome our fears and resistance, it is important that we create an environment in which we feel psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999; Newman et al., 2017). Only when we are convinced that our ideas will not have negative consequences can we take risks freely. The TERA model can provide guidance for collaborations (Bungay Stanier, 2016).

If we want to be creative, we need to make sure that we have a space where our creativity can flow freely. Many creatives use a schedule for this and get to work, whether they are inspired or not (Godin, 2020; Kleon, 2019; Pressfield, 2022). In this article, I describe how productivity can help us with that.

Three Tools

Morning Pages by Julia Cameron (2002): It is about writing three A4 pages every morning while keeping the pen in motion without pause. Our thoughts become clear, and we keep company with our fears. Important: Do not show the pages to anyone and do not evaluate what is written. Helpful: Destroy them immediately after writing.

"Fear Setting Exercise" by Tim Ferris (2011): Excellent for understanding and overcoming our fears. It is based on Seneca's "Premeditatio Malorum" and consists of three detailed steps: first, defining something we fear, second, defining the benefits of taking action, and third, realizing the costs of inaction.

Choosing Growth according to James Hollis (2005): When making decisions, we should not ask ourselves what makes us happy. The pursuit of happiness can lead us to the comfort zone and further amplify fears. Instead, we should ask ourselves which path allows us to grow. The path of growth may initially be harder, but it leads to a fulfilling life.

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