Inherent in the very act of creating ideas is chaos, unpredictability, randomness. Anybody who is in the business of ideas or who has had an idea knows that however much discipline and order we might rightly or wrongly try and inject, it is never a linear path.
Our challenge is often not to actually have the idea, but to recognise it from afar, or amidst the din and chaos, wrest it from the ghouls of doubt or criticism. To defend it against slings and arrows. To identify it as one with potential or better yet, as a Really Good One – worth protecting, nurturing, and developing.
That makes our jobs as creators, innovators, inventors and ideas people tough. It demands that we’re vigilant because ideas can creep up on us. They can appear at the edges suddenly and unexpectedly.
In his poem ‘The Thought Fox’ the English poet Ted Hughes dramatised vividly and viscerally how ideas can approach us silently, tentatively, waiting to be spotted or let in:
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed
On this subject of encouraging nervous ideas in, the ever-wise and ever-brilliant Jeremy Bullmore last year had some twenty-four carat advice in his column for Campaign. Responding to a question from someone new to the advertising business – "What are your three most important bits of advice for someone like me?" – his advice was this:
“Advertising is, or should be, all about ideas, wheezes, hypotheses and improvisations : why don't we…? what about…? let's try…… Good advertising makes difficult things happen – and almost everything that's going to be suggested, at least in it's initial expression, will be patently flawed.
As an eager young recruit, you'll be sorely tempted to display your intelligence by pointing this out : by focusing the blinding light of your analysis on the obvious inadequacies of each fragile weakling : and almost certainly in the presence of the weakling's author and the author's superior. What's more, it will be clear from your expression that you expect praise for this act of wanton demolition.
So my first piece of advice; never, ever do this. It's the easiest thing in the world and the least constructive. If you want to be valued, you need to display a consistent ability to see potential in the feeblest spark and help to coax and cosset it until it blazes into glory. If you can't do that, just shut up and listen.
I don't know what the other two are.”
Brilliant advice not just for new recruits, but all of us.
Fox or spark. Pick your metaphor.
Just remember to be the one that encourages it.
Or, as Mr. Bullmore suggests, shut up and listen.