When it comes to finding the next brilliant idea that could change your life and potentially change the world around you, there are two different schools of thought. Many people think that the best way to internalize their thought process and look for inspiration is to isolate themselves and focus on their own inner mindset until the “light bulb moment” hits. Others believe that getting out there, socializing with people and listening to what they have to say is where inspiration lies. While inspiration can hit at any time, and everyone’s mind works differently, getting out there and mixing with people in different environments is, in my opinion, the best way to boost your brain and enable the idea process. After all, as creatures we are at our best when we socialize. It’s in our blood.
Socializing has many benefits and can improve our well-being as well as our brain function. Interaction with others is the cornerstone of what makes us human. We thrive in social situations, and our minds become sharper and more astute the more we interact with the world around us. Doctors and scientists have long banged the drum of social interaction as a cure for a variety of emotional illnesses, including depression and anxiety. The mental stimulation socializing provides helps us not only to feel happier but can also improve the way we think and feel. It is this stimulation of human interaction that can be harnessed to generate not just ideas but great ideas.
How many times have you been at a restaurant with friends or family, and during the conversation a member of your party said something that sparked a moment of inspiration or clarity? How many times have you sat in a coffee shop listening to the hustle and bustle around you, when a lightning bolt of inspiration hit you (although we’ll discuss later the counterargument that inspirational lightning bolts don’t really exist)? The coffee shop environment is a hotbed of ideas. Take J.K. Rowling as an example. She spent hours of her time writing the initial drafts of her mega-selling Harry Potter book franchise whilst sitting in her local café and watching those around her for inspiration.
But the ideas generated while socializing don’t have to be as large or as complicated as writing the next best-selling children’s book. Successful ideas can be simple and still change the world. Look at how Tim Berners-Lee’s original humble idea of having a space to share and collaborate with colleagues bloomed into the World Wide Web. So many inventions and innovations start small and grow as more ideas (sometimes from other people) join them to make a larger whole.
Where do good ideas come from? The importance of the coffee shop
Coffee shops have long been venues for meeting friends and socializing. First becoming popular during the Enlightenment period of the 1700s, the advent of the café helped people meet up in alternative ways to the alcoholic drinking binges popular at the time. That’s not to say people didn’t socialize in the past because they clearly did. Prior to the creation of coffee-drinking establishments, meetings generally consisted of drinking copious amounts of alcohol to avoid becoming ill from the filthy water of the time. But alcohol rarely helps ideas grow because any ideas discussed under its influence are generally quickly forgotten, dismissed as ludicrous when sober, or ignored in favour of more alcohol. The advent of coffee shops helped focus ideas uninhibited by inebriation, and brought people together in a way that allowed them to discuss and ruminate while sober.
These days the significance of the coffee shop has diminished, but other locations, both physical and virtual, have sprung up to keep innovative ideas flowing. We’ll talk more about this in a moment, but first…
What exactly is an idea?
The problem with ideas is that many of us expect a “flash-bang” moment – a lightning strike of innovation that hits us out of the blue. But the notion that ideas form in an instantaneous moment of clarity is erroneous. The final revelation of an idea can come quickly, but it is seldom brought about by a spur-of-the-moment thought. Big ideas tend to be the end result of reflecting on many other smaller ideas or hunches. As each small idea forms and coalesces, a network of neurons opens in our brains, which pulls the smaller thoughts together to form a larger idea. But to open these neural networks you need the right stimuli. Most small ideas die because they aren’t stimulated in the right way. If you seek out opportunities to manipulate your thoughts and improve your cognitive ability, you’ll find bigger ideas come into focus more readily. How do you do this? By networking in real life, too, and sharing what you know with others, which brings us back to the coffee shop and what we like to call the Liquid Network.
The Liquid Network?
No, we are not talking about alcohol again. The Liquid Network is a metaphor for how we interact with each other and how these interactions form a fluid connection between us and the people around us to allow ideas to flow. It is the network of conversations, relationships, and interactions we have with those around us. It is about getting out there, meeting people, and learning from their experiences and knowledge.
We like to think that our ideas are born ready for the world, but they seldom are. Ideas are the brain’s equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster; they are cobbled together from a variety of places, including what we already know, what we have learnt, the conversations we’ve had with other people, as well as what we’ve seen and what we’ve heard. All these experiences get stitched together until they become something bigger than the sum of their parts…if we allow them to. As mentioned earlier, the idea of a lightning bolt of inspiration is misplaced. Even if the final idea appears to come quickly, it is often a result of hours, months, or even years of thought. But to get to this final state of clarity, we have to nurture the evolving ideas in our brains and allow them to become clearer by learning from other people. The Liquid Network is a place where this happens organically by putting us in situations that provide the social stimuli our brains need.
Where is the Liquid Network?
Researcher Kevin Dunbar undertook an investigation to find the most common places that ideas develop. He studied a wide range of scientists and their interactions and found that very few ideas came from working in a solitary manner in a lab. Instead, most of the innovation he found originated at the conference table or in the places where people mixed and shared their experiences, successes, and failures. This last point is crucial, and Dunbar’s results show that sharing mistakes, errors, and problems is a great way to encourage innovative thinking and pool brainpower towards a common goal.
This type of idea sharing is the definition of the Liquid Network – where people meet, talk, and fill in the blanks of their own thoughts by allowing knowledge to flow between them. It may be that your brain has half of an idea dwelling in its recesses (whether you realize it or not), and all you need to do is speak to someone who has the other half. It could be that dozens of people each have a small part of an idea, and the act of talking it through together allows each little piece of innovation to fall into place, and a larger idea is formed.
To bring the discussion back to the coffee shop, places where people can meet up, relax and talk allow ideas to mingle, be exchanged, and proliferate. And in the modern age, the idea of a coffee shop is both a real and a metaphorical space. Yes, your local café is a great way to socialize with others, but there are other places equally useful for generating ideas. Indeed, any physical space where people gather can be part of the Liquid Network, from your breakout room at work to your local pub.
The space doesn’t have to exist in the real world either. Historically, scientific innovation increases wherever connectivity with others is encouraged. People are quick to downplay the benefits of the World Wide Web and social media, and play up the many pitfalls it presents. But the advent of an online life presents a new way to enter the Liquid Network. It is, if you will, the new coffee shop for the modern age, where people can discuss their thoughts, problems, and dreams. It is a place where ideas can collide and change into innovative new forms. During the recent COVID pandemic, Zoom has been an effective way for people to keep social and continue looking for great ideas. Companies like my own videosocialize.com offer Zoom mixer meetings on a variety of topics to keep the Liquid Network active even in the most difficult of times.
So, how does the Liquid Network help you to generate ideas?
1. It allows you to get instant feedback on what you are thinking.
How many times have you come up with (what you think) is a great idea only to find that your friends, colleagues or loved ones think it is stupid? On the other hand, how many times have you mentioned an idea and had them say, “That sounds like a great idea”? Maybe they even enhanced it with thoughts of their own. Discussing an idea with those around you is a great way to get instant feedback.
Of course, even if they don’t like it, it doesn’t mean your thought process is wrong or that what you are thinking is a bad idea. But negative feedback can give you food for thought and might help you to revise the idea to make it more palatable to everyone else. One thing’s for sure, if you don’t have the conversations in the first place, you’ll never know what others think about your idea.
2. It allows you to understand what other people are thinking
Developing ideas alone can be incredibly difficult, and even the most innovative people will find it difficult to formulate great ideas by themselves. Socializing allows you to get to know what other people are thinking. How many times have you listened to a friend talk about an issue or problem, and your brain has been kicked into overdrive, and a solution has formed? Talking to each other is a great way to get to know people and pool your thoughts, whether they are positive or negative. It allows you to look at ideas from a different perspective and to understand if they will be of benefit to others.
3. It allows you to polish and refine your skillset
Ask yourself, “How do we learn?” As social animals we pick up everything we know, understand, and do by watching, listening, and learning from others. From a young age we absorb everything around us and allow it to shape our thoughts and ideas, initially from our parents and siblings, then from our school friends and teachers, and finally from our work colleagues and loved ones. Being around other people allows you to share what you know and take what you need to improve. It’s where you learn about the world around you and refine your own skills to better yourself. You may have a great idea, but do you have the means to expand on it and let it take shape? Right now you might not, but you can learn from others or take their knowledge to fill the gaps required for your idea to take flight.
How do you generate a great idea?
Ideas are easy to come by, but generating a great idea, as we have already discussed, is not easy. Here are a few guidelines that can help the process:
Have a problem that needs solving.
If you don’t have an issue in the first place, how are you going to have an idea that provides a solution to it? It would be great to think that there were no problems in the world, but without problems great innovations don’t exist. Would the wheel ever have been invented if we’d found it easier to carry large loads over long distances? Would the mobile phone exist if somebody hadn’t thought, “I wish I could take my phone with me when I leave the house”? Problems are essential in order for humans to grow intellectually. They prompt us to develop thought processes that solve the puzzles we find around us so we can bring benefit to others and ourselves. The best way to have great ideas is to look for the problems that need solving in our lives.
Listen to everything that is going on around you
Our ears allow us to absorb the ideas of others. We may think we have little left to learn or have little care to enhance our understanding. But by listening to what others say, think and feel, we allow our ideas to form and mix to become something larger than we ever dreamed they could be. The idea that we can’t learn from the people around us is short-sighted. Many of the most important innovations in recent times have come about because people have taken the time to listen to the things said by others.
For example, Dr Jean Carruthers was the first person to realize that injecting Botox into patients’ foreheads was a great way to remove wrinkles. Up until that point, Botox had been used primarily to prevent uncontrolled muscle spasms. This revelation came about by Carruthers listening to one of her patients who suggested she inject the serum into her forehead. When Dr Carruthers confusedly pointed out that the patient didn’t have muscle spasms in that part of her body, the patient responded, “I know, but every time you inject near my forehead, I get a smooth expression.” The light bulb moment happened at that moment for Carruthers, and Botox as a cosmetic application was born – all because she listened to her patient and let that form an idea in her mind.
Talk to everyone
It’s easy to think as the preeminent animal species on the planet that we can survive and thrive without the aid of others. But the truth of the matter is, we all need each other, whether we admit it or not. Think about it. Without the farmers in our community, we wouldn’t have food. Without the people who work in the power plant, we wouldn’t have electricity. Our bodies rely on what other people do for us. Our brains are the same. Without other people, our brains shrivel and shrink. We need people around us to discuss our successes and failures, so we can learn from their experiences. Talking to others is the best way to find solutions to problems and allow ideas to take shape and form.
Write down your ideas
Ideas, like many of the thoughts we have, live in a temporary part of our memory, and we only have a finite amount of time to access them before they set sail and disappear into the horizon of lost thoughts. How many times have you ruminated on a problem and had a nagging feeling that you’ve addressed the issue before or that there is something in the recesses of your brain that could help you solve it? I like to call this feeling “ideaja vu”, and it comes from the fact that at some point in the past, you’ve probably had a similar experience and thought about the same issue. Keeping your ideas logged so you can refer to them later is a great way to jog your memory and keep them at the forefront of your brain.
Ideas are never far away, but great ideas are hard to come by. By socializing in the Liquid Network, listening to what other people have to say, and learning from what other people do, you allow your thoughts to become something more than an inner monologue of your own ideas. You allow them to become solutions that can benefit everyone. Head over to videosocialize.com to see how we enable great ideas by creating a positive and exceptional online space with Zoom mixer meetings. We aim to provide access to an online Liquid Network by bringing large groups of people together to chat and discuss a wide range of topics, so they can pool their knowledge and thoughts and make that next big idea easier to find.
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