Three Steps to Finding Inspiration in Unexpected Places

Ideas can be born from the most unexpected places. Author J.K. Rowling first had the idea for Harry Potter while sitting on a delayed train. John Lennon was inspired to write “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” while looking at an interesting poster in an antique shop. And Nikola Tesla came up with his idea of alternating electric currents while out on a leisurely stroll.

How did they do it? As Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” 

Oftentimes you may feel stuck, when actually you’re close to a breakthrough and all you need is a little nudge to finalize the idea. Making connections between unlikely elements can unlock that “aha” moment that shows you the answer.

Here are three steps to making those elusive connections and boosting your creativity: 

Step 1: Train your brain in divergent thinking

We all have that friend or colleague who is exceptionally creative—who comes up with ideas that never even crossed your mind. While some people are naturally more inclined to make these connections, anyone can learn how to find inspiration in unexpected places thanks to divergent thinking. 

This mode of thought links ideas based on associative memory and new concepts. It encourages spontaneous, free-flowing thinking that entertains multiple solutions to a problem. That might sound difficult, and it can take time to train your brain to think this way, but there are techniques you can use to develop the ability for divergent thinking.

  • Synectics exercises train you to find connections between concepts, objects, or ideas that seem unrelated. To begin, choose any two things, like a lamp and box of tissues, and write down as many associations as you can think of. For example, you could find both items in an office, and you could make a lamp shade with tissues. Repeat this exercise everyday with new items.
  • The SCAMPER technique is a creative brainstorming approach that puts an existing idea through a set of filters:
    • Substitute: What part of this process or idea can be substituted or replaced? 
    • Combine: Can you combine two or more components?
    • Adapt: What else could you do, or how could you adjust, the existing idea? 
    • Modify: What changes could you make to get better results?
    • Put to another use: How could this idea solve other problems?
    • Eliminate: What would happen if you removed XYZ? 
    • Reverse: How could you rearrange the current status or workflow? 

Step 2: Lay the groundwork and capture all your ideas

While divergent thinking can help your brain find unexpected relationships, convergent thinking is the process of evaluating and refining your options, to help you select and develop the most promising ones. Both are fundamental to the creative process.

The connections you make will only be as good as the inputs: your ideas, thoughts, observations, and notes. It’s important then to capture everything, so you can graduate from making connections between two random objects to finding an inspired connection between two previously unrelated ideas.

Develop the habit of getting your ideas out of your head and into a note. Write down all those half-baked ideas that come to you when you’re in the shower or on a walk. Save words, drawings, images, or photos that speak to you—you don’t need to have a plan for them or even understand why they inspire you. You can make those connections later. 

Start by creating an “Ideas” notebook in Evernote to capture all your divergent thinking ideas, then set aside a dedicated block of time once a week for some convergent thinking. Go through your notebook deliberately. Do any ideas stand out? Flag them for further development. And even if an idea doesn’t immediately seem to fit, or sounds crazy, that doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come in handy. Leave it there and let your divergent mind keep searching for that elusive spark. 

Pro tip: Use tags in Evernote to organize your ideas by keywords such as categories, memories, or locations. 

Step 3: Introduce the unexpected

Inspiration can strike at any time. You may be watching a movie, talking to your neighbor, or listening to your favorite song, but in the background, your brain is busy making connections between the seemingly random activity and all your growing ideas.

As you train your brain to more easily see these relationships, and accumulate a library of ideas and notes, it’s time to introduce unexpected elements to jump-start your creativity and inspiration. The key is to really focus on the unexpected. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable to go off in a completely different direction, or it may just feel like a waste of time. But the more diverse your experiences are, the more likely you are to innovate. 

You can introduce the unexpected by: 

  • Reading history. Seeing how others have dealt with difficult problems can show us new solutions, even if the details seem very different.
  • Starting a new hobby. Novelty stimulates the reward center of our brains, which can improve memory and motivate us to explore further.
  • Listening to music. ‘Happy’ music, such as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” offers a mild diversion that relaxes our focus and encourages divergent thinking.
  • Talking to someone new. Chatting with a stranger—or someone we don’t know well—forces us to think in new ways instead of relying on habitual responses. 

Pro tip: Save and annotate PDFs and other content in Evernote to keep track of your thoughts and reactions as you are exposed to the unexpected.

Bonus: Make connections as a team

These approaches are designed to help you train your own mind, but you can also use them to make connections as a team—especially during creative brainstorming sessions. 

Traditionally, group brainstorming can lead to dozens of one-off ideas that don’t relate to each other. By combining the methods above, you can guide everyone toward a shared goal, building upon everyone’s ideas and finding unexpected connections. 

The easiest way to introduce divergent thinking to your team is with brainwriting, where each person writes down his or her ideas on a piece of paper—anonymously—and team members have the opportunity to comment or build on those ideas.

There are a number of variations of brainwriting, including:

  • Interactive brainwriting: Instead of simply collecting idea cards, you pass them to other members of the team. Team members can add comments or additional ideas to the note before passing it to the next person.
  • 6-3-5 brainwriting: In this approach, groups of six generate three ideas per round, with each round lasting five minutes. In the first round, everyone writes down three quick ideas on a piece of paper. In round two, you pass your paper to the person sitting next to you, who reads the first set of ideas and adds another set of three below. In rounds three, four, five, and six, you continue passing your piece of paper and adding new and/or improved ideas to the papers you receive. Once you get your own piece of paper back, the process is complete.
  • Collaborative brainwriting: With collaborative brainwriting, you hang a large piece of paper on a wall with markers nearby. Write the question, problem, or prompt on the paper and invite team members to jot down their ideas when they feel inspired. They can also comment or build on ideas that are already written down.

Pro Tip: Save a picture of your collaborative brainwriting in Evernote, then share it with the team for later review or reference.

The power of connections

Knowledge alone isn’t enough to spark creativity. The secret to unlocking inspiration, and seeing the world through different eyes, is making new connections between the pieces of information you already have.

So, the next time you’re working on a project or coming up with the next big thing, just remember: you’re closer to a creative breakthrough than you think. Sometimes all you need is a little dose of the unexpected.

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