Hunting the Killer Idea

Nick McFarlane

Over the past year I’ve been hunting the killer idea. It was originally meant to be a simple journey, but soon mutated into an epic adventure taking me to a mountain of books and deep into the minds behind them, as I tried myself to capture the essence of creativity.

Every time I thought I’d grasped its elusive qualities the killer idea slipped my hand, disappearing into the bush only to reappear in a different form.

But on I hiked, interviewing, asking questions and stealing quotations from artists, designers, advertisers and many more. Each had tales to tell about their encounter with the beasts which roam the darker corners of the mind.

Liam Howlett of The Prodigy told me “the creative mind, you have to feed it” and how he always keeps his ear to the ground, should inspiration try to sneak by. Ad guru Dave Trott reckons life is a zero sum game and the only way to survive is to out-think the opposition by going upstream of the problem.

Anarchist, Noam Chomsky noted how creativity flourishes under conditions of restraint, saying: “…freedom is not a necessary prerequisite for creativity; for example, some of the most creative musical genres like blues and jazz were created by slaves and their bitterly repressed descendants.”

Some hunt intuitively like artists absorbed in the process of expressing the inner world. While others develop systems to maximise their chances. Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking encourages us to use logic and reason in a manner which isn’t immediately obvious.

I was six months deep when my publisher asked how I was progressing? “Great” I said. “I’ve finished the first chapter.”  “One chapter!?” he replied, shocked.

Suddenly the enormity of the task dawned on me. I could feel panic surging up from my heart and tightening its grasp around my throat.

I should have been well into the book by this stage. Worse still, I realised I had nothing original to show. I’d collected a healthy swag of facts, quotes and stories but what did it all mean? Where was I going with all this? I was lost and alone in the jungle, my head felt heavy from the amount of half thoughts and partial insights flittering around like bats haunting my cranium.

By the light of a fire I laid out everything I’d done so far and tried to revise my steps. Nothing made sense. The simple task of writing a light read about the warm, fuzzy subject of creativity no longer looked appetising. The idea I wanted to capture now was something altogether different.

The dark beasts of doubt circled as I questioned my abilities and in the distance I could hear the roar of the deadline as it approached closer by the day.

The flames lapped up the pages as I threw them into the fire. Giving up, I put my head in my hands and fell into a deep, deep sleep.

In my dream I could see a figure in the distance. As I approached I realised it was Charles Darwin and he was holding a cat. He said “watch this” and threw it among a group of pigeons.

“It is not the strongest of the species which survive, nor the most intelligent. But the ones most responsive to change,” he said.

The ones which don’t survive are the ones which make predictable decisions in the fight or flight to escape. To survive requires creative thinking.

I woke and knew where I had to take this book. I had been chasing the surface apparition of creativity. The colour of a brush stroke, the sound of an album, the success of an ad campaign.

But creativity is a deeper thing. Creativity mainlines directly into who we are as humans.

Creativity has arisen out of our evolutionary need to adapt quickly in a changing environment. It is what helped mankind out of the jungle and into the modern world. And so to, ideas which are predictable die. Ideas which do the unexpected take flight.

I’m one week away from deadline and there’s still plenty of ground to cover. But I think I’ve found my killer idea. That the purpose of creativity is intrinsic to fulfilling our potential as human beings. I may be wrong and the killer idea may slip my grasp once again but I can honestly say, the hunt has been worth it.

By Nick McFarlane


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