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To create better, shut down your mind

Posted in the following categories: Creativity

Carl Sagan was the voice of scientific reason.

His creative process, however, was anything but reasonable.

He had a practice of letting his thoughts run wild at night, often with the aid of marijuana. He’d smoke a joint, start talking to himself, and record his thoughts on a tape recorder so he wouldn’t forget what he said. In the morning, he’d listen to the tape and examine his wild ideas from a more skeptical perspective.

There was a Jekyll and Hyde quality to Sagan’s practice. His rambling “evening” self had to convince his doubtful “morning” self that he wasn’t out of his mind. So the evening Sagan would record messages to the morning Sagan specifically to dispel his skepticism. For example, he’d recite hard-to-remember facts to demonstrate feats of memory only associated with high intelligence. These facts generally turned out to be accurate.

When this logic failed, Sagan would resort to intimidation. In one particularly memorable tape, the “evening” Sagan berated the “morning” Sagan for being too judgmental of his ideas. “Listen closely, you sonofabitch of the morning!,” he yelled to his future self on the tape recorder. “This stuff is real!”

You don’t need controlled substances to emulate Sagan’s approach. The key is to separate the idea generation phase from the idea evaluation phase—your evening self from your morning self.

During idea generation, you must protect your thoughts from—well—you.

If unconstrained, your inner critic will snuff out all seemingly unreasonable insights and crush valuable ideas while they’re still incubating.

When you’re generating ideas, ask your inner critic to quiet down and invite your inner child to play. Don’t censor, evaluate, or critique. Inside your own mind, all ideas—however foolish or outrageous—are welcome. The goal is to leave them unjudged in the curiosity cabinet where they can germinate as your imaginative inner child turns them over.

Most people prematurely cut off idea generation by immediately judging whether an idea belongs in the cabinet in the first place—by evaluating what’s reasonable, what’s probable, what’s doable.

That’s like driving a car while simultaneously pressing on the gas and brake pedals. No wonder you can’t move. No wonder you get blocked. Just as you begin to speed up, your inner critic slams on the brakes by telling you “That’s a terrible idea” or “That sentence you just wrote—it’s no good.”

The inner critic—like Sagan’s morning self—serves a critical function. And its services will be needed when you switch from generating to evaluating ideas. But when you’re still playing around with thoughts, put the inner critic in the back seat where it can’t reach the brake pedal.

In the end, creativity isn’t about forcing ideas to come.

Whether you realize it or not, ideas are already flowing in the depths of your subconscious.

You just need to unblock obstacles that prevent their natural flow.

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