The Inverted Time Cone — How to Avoid the #1 Mistake Most Creatives Make

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

When I was a kid I used to love writing stories. Or rather I used to love the idea of writing stories. The problem was that my stories would often not be much longer than a few words; I could rarely get beyond the opening sentence. As soon as I had the beginning down I would ask myself whether this really was the best way to begin.

And so I’d go back.

And rewrite the opening sentence.

And tweak a few words.

And then wonder if the original opening had, after all, been better.

Before I knew it the first flush of inspiration had ebbed into a hollow feeling of frustration and all I had to show for my labours were a few sheets of screwed up paper on my bedroom floor.

Although I didn’t know it at the time I was making the same mistake that most creative people make early on in their working lives. It’s a mistake which can be fatal to any given creative endeavour, but which can also be easily overcome once you recognise it.

Harvard Business School have run an experiment on creative thinking a number of times. And each time the outcome is the same. They take a room of creative professionals, then they divide the room into two teams. Both teams are given a brief and asked to find solutions for it.

The first group are told to concentrate on coming up with the best idea they possibly can. For them the emphasis is on quality, finding a completely original and innovative answer to the problem at hand.

The second group is told not to worry about the quality of their ideas. Their sole focus is to be quantity; to come up with as many ideas as they can without being concerned about whether those ideas are original — or indeed any good at all.

Without fail, it is always the team who have been told to think only of quantity not quality who, paradoxically, have the best ideas.

This is because evaluation and creativity are different processes. They happen in different parts of the brain; with the evaluative and analytical function taking place in the frontal cortex. As soon as you stop to question whether the ideas you’ve generated are any good you’re putting the brakes on your own creativity, switching from one neurological mode to another.

Of course anyone involved in a creative pursuit, anyone who seeks to make original and meaningful work, must at some point evaluate their output for quality. The trick is not to do it too soon.

Below is a diagram of how I see the creative process. It begins with a period of opening up, of divergence, followed by a period of convergence or distillation.

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The Inverted Time Cone

During the first period of what I’ve come to call the inverted time cone, the trick is to generate as many ideas as you possibly can, to be carefree and not concern yourself with any notion of quality. At this stage you’re attempting to trip your brain into a state of creative flow, where it’s as if the ideas are coming not from you but from elsewhere and you are merely the conduit, transcribing them. It’s all about volume here. A notebook and a pencil are all you need.

Then, roughly half way through the process, you flip.

You change states, from creative to critical.

Now you cast a ruthless eye over the ideas you’ve jotted down, analysing them for originality, innovation and quality. You discard anything which feels derivative, which fails to stir your creative soul. And you start to think in more detail about execution.

Over time I’ve come to use this way of working no matter how long I have on a project. No matter whether that’s two months, two weeks or just two hours. Indeed I’ve discovered that the less time you have the more you feel the desire to evaluate early on. You’re feeling the pressure so you want to know as soon as you can whether what you’ve come up with is any good. But you have to resist this urge and give your brain the time and space it needs to go deep and get to the really good stuff.

Next time you have a creative project try this way of working and see where it takes you. Oh, and I’m not sure how much better the stories I write these days are than those I came up with when I was a kid. But at least now I make it to the end.

Thanks for reading this article. If you’d like to join me for a free webinar on creativity then visit my website.

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I write, think & speak about the creative process. For more inspiration go to www.richardholman.com or listen to my podcast The Wind Thieved Hat on iTunes.

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