Book Notes: Where we read and condense books down to their main takeaways for creatives.
These books that promise “the one thing” or “10 steps to guaranteed … ” they all set off my bullshit alarm faster than most really fast things. Too many of them have more filler content than actual practical advice, or the advice could be communicated in a page and is drawn out and repeated for 200.
But this book is different.
For one, it’s short. It is 28 pages, including a foreword and preface. James Webb Young writes in clear, generally concise prose, and the only time he tells a personal story he apologizes for his self-indulgence.
Second, it’s correct, you just know it, you feel it. He takes a process so familiar to so many of us and codifies it in a way that provides clarity to even the most practiced creatives. It’s obvious after you read it because he makes it so. This reminds me of another favorite book and quote:
“A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (my favorite translation is here)
And so we attribute his clear explanation to common sense, that’s how effective he is in his prose.
Third, I just love the way he writes. He doesn’t repeat himself, he doesn’t dumb it down, nor does he fill with anecdotal evidence or flowery language. Though, it was originally published in 1940, the language is remarkably undated (with a few snicker-worthy exceptions).
Ok, but the meat is his technique. Here are my very brief notes on the technique for producing ideas:
- Gather materials
- Walk away for a while
- BAM! Idea.
- Critique and refine
Again, this may seem obvious once laid out, but Mr Young correctly points out that so many of us still get stuck. We skip a step, or rush through another. Each one, he says, is paramount and must be given full room to work as part of the whole process.
- Gathering materials is not a quick process, and in an ideal world it shouldn’t be work. Becoming enough of an expert on a set of concepts to effectively build and remix them into an authentic interest in the subject matter. If I don’t care about dogs, illustrating a book about a dog would be a chore. But if I’m a dog lover, and have my own authentic curiosity about the subject matter, the ideas will be easier to generate. Think about it this way, if I know one thing about dogs, there’s a lot less to remix into a new idea than if I’ve lived with dogs all my life and read the blogs and training manuals etc. Every scrap and note is important.
- Digest, and not towards a goal. You have to feel into all your materials, get to know them, listen to them, and be open to their relationships to each other. You don’t stare at your materials directly, you try to look at them through your peripheral vision and get a deeper sense of them. You don’t sit and push them through into an idea, that would skip step 3 and you can’t skip step 3. Even with the harshest deadlines, finding a way to do step 3 is key, so don’t rush two.
- Walk away, do something else, keep your mind away from the problem you are trying to solve. Mr Young points to Sherlock Holmes’ habit of dragging Watson to a show in the middle of a case, and notes that Sir Conan-Doyle was a creative and knew how problems were solved and ideas were created. And there are countless studies that link creativity and idea generation specifically to the ability to take a break, a walk, a shower, or any activity that puts you in a zone and not a work-frenzy.
- The idea comes. Again, you can’t look for it, it has to find you. This might seem like magic, something you can’t duplicate or repeat. Mr Young assures us if we follow steps 1-3 then 4 will happen.
- He call’s this the morning after. In the cold light of day, your AHA idea may have some rough edges. But it is still a good idea, so you workshop it, get critique, refine it. Mr Young suggests that good ideas will attract constructive critique, and the excitement of the idea will translate into your trusted circle adding to the idea through suggestions and refinements.
$6 and 28 pages and no regrets.