Make Your Mind a Fertile Ground for Generating Great Ideas: The Courage to be Different
by Avil Beckford

Goethe said, “Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.”

Did you know that you can transform your mind into a fertile ground for generating great ideas? Where do great ideas come from? Do great ideas come only to some people? How will you know if you have a really great idea? What constitutes a great idea? Have all the great ideas been thought of already?

The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines an idea as “a conception or plan formed by mental effort,” and great as “amount, extent, or intensity considerably above the normal or average.” In that vein, a “great idea” is a conception or plan formed by mental effort that illuminates above the ordinary.

Researchers and scientists have studied the birthing of ideas considerably. In the 1926 book “The Art of Thought,” Graham Wallas, the American psychologist, adopted and expanded, Hermann von Helmholtz’s process to develop an idea. In “The Art of Thought,” Wallas describes a four-stage process for generating great ideas — preparation, incubation, illumination and implementation. (See Table 1)

In the Wallas Model preparation stage, a period of study and fact-finding, you gather information to resolve any issues, challenges or problems that you may be facing. This phase includes activities such as reading about the subject matter to identify what’s been done before, interviewing subject experts and any other means of collecting opinions or ideas on the subject, and assessing your ideas and memory with the subject. When you become stressed, bored, overwhelmed, or distracted, or feel that you have gathered sufficient information, it’s time to take a break. Stop thinking about the problem and sleep on it. Though you are not consciously working on your issues, challenges or problems, your subconscious mind is busy working at connecting the different pieces of information to form ideas, creating something different and new.

When you least expect it, you have a sudden flash of insight, an epiphany or an “aha” moment where the new idea(s) to resolve your issues, challenges or problems surface to your conscious mind and you suddenly become illuminated. The great idea(s) that surfaces could be implemented the way you conceived it, or you may have elements of a great idea that you have to refine.

To further explore the concept of great ideas, twelve individuals of varying backgrounds responded to an emailed survey aimed at finding out their opinions on great ideas, to help determine if there is an easier process than the Wallas Model to generate great ideas.

What is a “great idea” to survey respondents? “A great idea is an idea that gives someone a new perspective or way in which to see the world. A great idea is something that helps mankind to create, evolve or develop in some specific way,” wrote one respondent. Another responded, “It’s fresh, in the sense that I haven’t heard it before and it offers a solution to a challenge that may be long-standing or a challenge that I may not even be aware of yet.” Yet another responded that it’s, “An idea that fills a need that is greater than personal self interest; a need that will serve others be they constituents, shareholders, stakeholders or the public at large.” No two responses were identical, but you get a sense that a great idea is and idea that’s above the ordinary.

When it came to determining if there was a process for generating ideas, the responses were different, and it showed that there wasn’t a clear process for generating great ideas. However, when you looked closely, some of their activities to generate great ideas are similar to those in the four-stage process. Here are some of the things that respondents do to generate great ideas.

  • Pray and meditate, knowing that the answers will come when the time is right
  • Respond to a stimuli that starts me thinking which results in a new idea
  • Read the best that has been thought and said about things that really matter, talk to thoughtful people about things that really matter, spend time reflecting on things that really matter and prepare the soil as best as you can
  • Ideas are always out there. You just have to put two different ideas or thoughts together to create something new
  • Sit quietly and wait for them [ideas] to come to me from the depths of my subconscious
  • Brainstorm everything I am thinking about on a piece of paper, then look for ideas that will connect with those ideas using the internet, newspaper, books and so on.  Look at the context in which you want to use the ideas then add, subtract or combine ideas, and once you have a great idea look at how to implement it
  • Think about the situation and think about the best possible solution, even if it’s an impossible solution.

Great ideas came to respondents at different times. One respondent had a Eureka moment while sitting in church watching and listening to a group of musicians. For others it happened immediately after praying and meditating, talking and trading insights and reading a book on the subject matter. For others it happened after a process of thinking and visualization.

So, how do you know when you’ve got a great idea? The books referenced for this article suggest that you cannot know if you’ve had a great idea until you implement it, then you’ll be able to measure its influence on society. But, some ideas are great because of how they change people’s lives or illuminate a new path, or different way of seeing. Only one respondent agreed that you do not know if your idea is great until you implement it. The other respondents said the following:

  • You have a gut sense that the idea will help you fulfill the triple bottom line; best self, best work and contributing to my best world
  • It comes as a revelation. It gives you an understanding of something
  • It comes back into your mind again and again and you can’t ignore it
  • When other people are excited by it and want to get involved
  • Some great ideas come before their time. They won’t succeed because of conditions, circumstances, attitudes, belief and so on. Success or failure alone is not the judge.
  • When you feel bliss in its execution
  • You become very excited and can see the possibilities that can generate from the idea. You know that your idea is good when you see the entire picture and everything becomes “crystal clear”
  • When everything is in sync, your mind, body and your heart.

A review of several books on creativity, great thinkers and scientists who changed the world, books such as Discover Your Genius, Aha! 10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas, The Art of Thought, The Art of Thinking, suggest that great thinkers have certain traits in common. Are you curious what those traits are? Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie and Alexander Fleming, a few of the great thinkers who made discoveries that influenced/changed the world, displayed many of the following traits.

  • Ability to reflect
  • Observation skills
  • Openness to experiment
  • Keep record of research
  • Impossible was not an answer
  • Open minded
  • Childlike sense of play
  • Curious
  • Voracious reader
  • Read/study broadly
  • Observe and collect facts
  • Independent thinking
  • Take breaks to reenergize
  • Total absorption in subject
  • Have imagination
  • Have vision
  • Didn’t reinvent the wheel - built on present knowledge
  • Look at the limitations of old inventions and devise a solution
  • Modify present technologies for other uses
  • Ability to make connections between two different things
  • Ability to combine theoretical knowledge with practical skills
  • Paid attention to detail
  • Give vital ideas the opportunity to take root and grow

From the list, you’ll recognize some of the activities mentioned by the survey respondents. It does not appear that there is a simpler formula or process for generating great ideas, but there are things that you can do to increase your chances of doing so. All of us are capable of generating our own great ideas. Each day spend some time reflecting on life. Travel to places that you’ve never been before, eat foods different from what you are accustomed to, interact with nature, and take time to learn about another culture. Connect with people from cultures different from yours. Read a variety of different books - both fiction and nonfiction - and other materials, and think about what you’ve read. You can also think about problems that need solving and work on ways to solve those problems. These small steps will make your mind a more fertile ground for generating great ideas. The trick is to immerse yourself in many enriching activities and create new experiences for yourself.

The leaders and innovators of tomorrow are the creative thinkers of today.

Table 1: The Four-stage process for generating great ideas

Avil Beckford is the President of Ambeck Enterprise Services, a research organization that specializes in finding, filtering, organizing, evaluating, and customizing information from a variety of sources into powerful solutions that will shift the competitive advantage to your organization. She is also the author of Tales of People Who Get It and its companion guide, Journey to Getting It. Visit for additional information.

Many more articles in Creativity & Innovation in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2007 by Avil Beckford. All rights reserved.

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