“It’s your job to be inspired.”
That simple phrase rang in my ears. Paul Bennett, a passionate creative and colleague, noticed that I had fallen into a slump, and asked me to join him for breakfast. What he offered wasn’t fortune cookie advice. It was an imperative, a mandate, a Jedi moment.
At IDEO, projects span from 3 weeks to several months—short and intense sprints that range across a variety of industries. Somehow between two of my projects, I had stepped into the mire of creative despondency. I wasn’t feeling generative or inspired. Worse, I had become distracted by those haunting voices of self-doubt—“Are you good enough,” and “Are you really doing enough”—the grime of the dark side.
They seemed inexhaustible in their ability to get others excited about new ideas—never disengaged or tired of whatever they were working on. I emerged with three guiding principles for how to stay inspired.
Remember your childhood wonders—half material, half magical? Your creativity wasn’t pretentious. It wasn’t contrived. It was driven by pure curiosity. Somewhere along the way, as you got older, you lost that force, or buried it. But cultivating curiosity sets us back on a path of discovery. It pushes us out of the realm of complacency, and opens us again to the (im)possible. There lots of ways to stoke it. One way I recommend is taking a human centered design approach to problem solving (download the Human Centered Design Toolkit as a start).
I got my next bit of Jedi wisdom on a walk with Diego Rodriguez, an insightful design leader here at IDEO. As we talked about doing great work, he said, “The truth is, I’m most inspired when I’m producing, not consuming.” Instead of just putting down work that is uninspiring and waiting for some answer, he said, I’d be more likely to alight upon solutions by picking up something entirely different—something creative, generative, or simply active. It’s important to unfocus sometimes, and allow space for other ideas, outside the specific challenge, to help your work along. In other words, don’t just wait around for inspiration, mine for it.
He seemed genuinely surprised. “Me? No way! I’m always trying to find ways to connect interesting things that initially seem unrelated.” Figuring out how disparate things relate to one another often uncovers something entirely new, he said.
Not long after these talks, I got out of my rut. Not by identifying what inspires, but by figuring out how to stay engaged. I now follow the gerunds: searching, doing, and reflecting, to find inspiration and bring it in.