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The Inner River: How We Get Our Ideas Flowing

Creative ideas are increasingly important in a changing world. Only those who can forge new paths will successfully navigate the evolving challenges. The question remains: how do we generate these creative ideas?

Personally, I find the metaphor of enabling our inner river to flow useful. This can be achieved by ensuring a steady stream of impressions, eliminating any obstacles in the river, and carving out a space for our creativity to flow.

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

What Is Considered Creative?

Creativity lacks a uniform definition. However, there's general agreement that creativity allows us to produce something valuable that didn't exist before. This value might be material, or it may stem from the joy and well-being that creative expression brings, which is indeed quite "valuable" (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2014; Runco & Jaeger, 2012; Simonton, 2012)

Example: I impulsively rearrange our apartment, moving the bed into the hallway. When my partner comes home, she struggles to open the door. "Creative, right?" I ask. "Definitely new, but hardly practical!" she exclaims, slightly annoyed, pushing against the door. "What if I move everything back to how it was?" I ask, uncertain. "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'm interpreting my partner's perspective correctly, she would have preferred that I didn't move the bed into the hallway. In other words, she would have appreciated more restraint from my Executive-Control Networks (ECN) in the brain, which are responsible for curbing impulsive ideas. 

Why do we choose to withhold certain ideas and not others? The neuroscientific "Twofold Model" by Kleinmitz & Co (2019) offers insights. This model suggests that we evaluate ideas in two stages: 

  1. Initially, we unconsciously assess the value of ideas, where emotions and motivation significantly influence the process.
  2. Subsequently, we consciously evaluate the ideas for their novelty.

If we don't view ideas as new and valuable, we are inclined to withhold them. This is particularly true in the workplace, where our reputation and self-worth are often on the line. The issue lies in our initial lack of understanding of an idea's value (Rietzschel et al., 2010). Ideas are akin to diamonds: their true worth is only revealed once they are polished (Catmull, 2014). 

How to Get Our Ideas Flowing Again

In very young children, the inner river flows freely into the world. They express their feelings uninhibitedly. It is through education that they learn to regulate their emotions in society, understanding that failure to do so may lead to "consequences.”

In the context of creativity, this is significant. When we inhibit parts of our nature - however important that might be - we also suppress aspects of our creative expression. It's like damming up our inner river into a reservoir.

Using the metaphor of a blocked river, we can identify three basic strategies to enhance the free flow of our ideas:

  1. Before the dam, by ensuring there's sufficient water in the river.
  2. After the dam, by creating an area for the water to flow unimpeded.
  3. At the dam, by reducing the volume of water that is restrained.

We can enhance the first point by staying open to new experiences and exposing ourselves to a variety of information. The second point can be accomplished by carving out a dedicated space and time for our creativity, and by imposing constraints on its boundless possibilities (Heath & Heath, 2013).

Dismantling the resistances of our dam, the third point, can be a challenging task. Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art (2002), suggests that overcoming our resistances involves dealing with our fears. Scientific evidence also supports the idea that fears inhibit creativity (Adams, 2019; Baas et al., 2008). Using the metaphor of the inner river, it's clear that if fears make up the dam, they hinder our natural expression.

For instance, we might avoid writing altogether rather than risk failing after a successful debut novel. The fear of not matching the success of the first book could "resist" our desire to publish a second one. Pulitzer Prize winner Harper Lee may have experienced something similar; she never published another book after her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

How to Open the "Damn" Dam 

How do we overcome our fears? How can we eliminate inhibitions and resistance? How can we stop feeling ashamed of our actions? 

The 'inner river' metaphor offers two crucial insights: 

  1. Fears do not need to control us. We might feel obstructed, but in reality, we are the ones obstructing (Godin, 2020; Pressfield, 2002).
  2. Our fears and resistance are not our enemies. They help us protect ourselves from negative outcomes (Brown, 2007; Hollis, 2005).

Our resistance is not our adversary. Battling it only amplifies our fears and, consequently, our resistance. This concept is highlighted by author Elizabeth Gilbert (2016), business consultant Peter Block (2011), and stoic philosopher Ryan Holiday (2021). Instead of opposing, we should acknowledge our fears and invite them to sit alongside us. 

If overcoming resistance proves too challenging, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can provide valuable guidance. Both approaches suggest that we must first befriend our fears before we can dismiss them. (Riggenbach, 2021; Orsillo & Roemer, 2012). Fears are often our body's way of trying to protect us, something we can appreciate. If we can recognize, accept, and gently prove to our fears that they are unfounded, we can release them, feeling safe in the process (Brach, 2004; 2020). 

By making friends with our fears, we can enable our ideas to flow more freely. This increase in the number of ideas also elevates the likelihood of generating truly creative concepts (Adams, 2019; Osborn, 1963). Therefore, it's beneficial to initially concentrate on the free flow of ideas, with the evaluation of ideas occurring as a subsequent step. 

However, the notion that we must completely eradicate our fears to be creative is a misconception. On the contrary, fears play a vital role in creative processes (Gilbert, 2016; Pressfield, 2002). Furthermore, fears can kindle our creative expression, as demonstrated by artists like Käthe Kollwitz, Frida Kahlo, and Edvard Munch. The impact of our fears is shaped by how we engage with them. 

And What to Do With My Bed Now?

Returning to my reorganising activity, I initially followed my intuition and placed the bed in the hallway at the start of the article. Next time, before starting, I could certainly identify requirements, draft sketches, cut them out, and reassemble them… 

I could certainly do all of that, but I choose not to. When circumstances allow for play and experimentation without fear or risk, we should seize the opportunity. This includes considering even the most absurd ideas. It is through this process that we can discover new, valuable paths, surprise ourselves, and truly explore what is possible. 

Indeed, on our first night in the hallway, from this new perspective, through a small crack in the kitchen window, we see - about 400 light-years away - a sparkling star being born. 

First Steps

To maintain the free flow of our inner river, we must ensure a continuous influx. This can be achieved by staying curious, embracing new experiences, continually challenging ourselves, and surrounding ourselves with inspiring individuals (Amabile, 2012; Schutte & Malouf, 2019).

To overcome our fears and resistance, it's crucial to create an environment where we feel psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999; Newman et al., 2017). We can take risks freely only when we're confident our ideas won't have negative consequences. The TERA model can guide collaborations (Bungay Stanier, 2016).

To foster creativity, it's important to have a space where creativity can flow freely. Many creative individuals maintain a schedule and engage in their work, regardless of whether they feel inspired or not (Godin, 2020; Kleon, 2019; Pressfield, 2022). In my article, I discuss how my 'second brain' aids my creativity.

Three Tools

Morning Pages by Julia Cameron (2002): This method involves transferring all our thoughts onto paper, writing three A4 pages every morning while keeping the pen moving. Consequently, our thoughts become slower and more organized. It's important not to show these pages to anyone or judge what is written. It can be useful to destroy them immediately after writing.

"Fear Setting Exercise" by Tim Ferris (2011): This is an excellent resource for understanding and overcoming specific fears. It draws from Seneca's "Premeditatio Malorum" and comprises three detailed steps: first, identify a fear; second, outline the benefits of confronting it; and third, understand the consequences of avoiding it.

James Hollis (2005) suggests choosing growth over happiness in decision-making. The pursuit of happiness can trap us in our comfort zones, exacerbating our fears. Instead, we should opt for the path that encourages growth. This path involves embracing risks and venturing into the unknown. While it may initially seem intimidating, it ultimately leads to a more satisfying life.

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