The lifecycle of creative ideas

“Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” – David Allen

Your ideas are alive and you're in charge of raising them. If you don't take good care of them, they'll grow sick and die.

This is their lifecycle:

Infancy: The idea is born in your head. For now, it's only a fragile thought and it cannot survive without your constant attention. The moment you ignore it, it starts fading away.

This is the new business idea, the melody that pops up, the fleeting vision of a new painting.

Childhood: When you start translating your idea into a memo, it enters its childhood. It's raw, but now it can survive without your constant attention. The memo acts as a reminder, a safety net in case parts of the idea slip out of your mind.

This is the text note on your phone, the voice recording of a melody, the sketch on a napkin.

It can be tempting to skip this stage out of overconfidence and assume that you won't forget any detail of the new idea. Don't fall into this trap. Always save your new idea in a memo: even if you do remember it, when the idea stays in your head it can easily get distorted and lose its initial appeal. Even worse, that can happen without you realizing it.

Few things are worth losing a great idea, so be ready for them.

If you can, carry with you a tool to create memos at all times. Favor a tool that you can use anywhere and quickly. This will allow you to save your ideas whenever they strike you, and the faster you can do it, the less you'll risk interruptions.

In many cases, your phone will be good enough. I always carry one with me to save musical ideas and all kinds of potentially useful thoughts, even when I go out for a run. If you're a visual artist, a pocket notebook might be your best idea-saver.

An idea in its childhood rarely has its details sorted out. A couple of paragraphs about a business idea won't tell you how its website's landing page will look like. A voice recording of me singing a guitar melody out of tune won't tell you how the real song will make you feel. A pencil sketch on a pocket notebook won't tell you how the finished painting will look like.

Often you'll figure out the specifics of your idea as you grow it further. Other times you'll already know them at this stage but you won't be able to translate them into a memo. If you find yourself in the latter case and you have a promising idea in mind, consider growing it to the next stage as soon as possible. This will prevent losing the specifics you've already figured out.

Many creators have a pile of ideas in their childhood waiting to be grown further. This is because until this step it's all just fun planning, and to grow the idea further involves a resource-consuming act: execution.

Adolescence: When you start translating your idea into a real-life prototype, it enters adolescence. The idea isn't polished yet but it reveals its potential. This is a crucial moment in which below-average ideas should be spotted and discarded.

This is the beta version, the song demo, the work-in-progress.

Adolescence can be a difficult stage in the life of an idea. It's at this point that it shows its true nature, sometimes to the disappointment of its creator. An app that seems great on paper can turn out to be impractical in real life. A promising song that feels great in my head can turn out to be bland when turning it into a demo. A painting with an exquisite color palette in your mind can turn out to be a visual mess when painting it.

These disappointments often happen because:

a) The idea wasn't good from the beginning, but I didn't notice it.

b) The appeal got deformed during its translation from thought to prototype.

Point a) improves with experience.

Point b) improves with better decision-making. Translating from thought to prototype means taking a lot of small decisions: "Which typography will I use for the landing page body?", "Which synthesizer for these background chords?", "Which color for these shadows?". Being in the flow - focused and in a state of deep work - makes you take better decisions.

But flow is fragile, and distractions, technical issues, and not knowing your tools are its enemies. Avoid them and your output will improve. At the same time, knowing the theory of your craft - what others have figured out before you - will speed up your decision-making by limiting your options to what normally works (in some cases, you may choose to avoid it).

The memos you created during the earlier life stages of the idea will aid you in staying on track if you lose perspective - one more reason not to skip the idea's childhood.

Seeing an idea turn bad when reaching adolescence hurts, but it's better to see it now than when you release it to the public. This is an important part of this stage: to confirm if the idea is worth pursuing further or not.

Don't fall in love with below-average ideas, and never grow them further than this stage. It can take weeks, months, even years to polish an idea that took you a couple of days to create. So as soon as you realize that an idea is average at best (compared to your other ideas), put it aside.

I always think about what an audio engineer told me the first time I stepped into a recording studio: "Don't polish a turd!". It's better to come up with new ideas, to go back to step one. And after all, that's often the most fun part of the whole creative process.

The better you become at this discarding process, the more and better your output will be. Experience and external feedback makes it easier to spot bad ideas, though sometimes it won't be clear until the idea reaches adolescence. Because of this, the more efficiently you grow ideas, the less painful it will be to discard them. And the less painful it is, the more you'll do it, resulting in higher quality output.

If you can honestly confirm that an idea is good enough, keep on polishing it until it's ready for the world.

Adulthood: Congratulations! The idea is finished and ready for the public. The better care you took of it while growing it, the more it will match or surpass the expectations you had during its infancy.

This is the launched product, the released single, the published painting.

No idea is ever 100% ready to enter adulthood. There's always a little detail to improve, there's always a "what if". It's ok to be a perfectionist, as long as you don't forget that reaching perfection is impossible. That's especially relevant in art, where what's perfect for you might differ from what's perfect for me.

And regardless of how high you value an idea, it's hard to predict how it will be received. Creators of all kinds often tell stories of how pieces on which they had great expectations ended up being mostly ignored, while others on which they had fewer expectations became a big success. Your best reaction to this as a creator is simple: keep creating.

Release your adult idea into the wild and move on to the next one. You've got a ton of other ideas waiting for your attention!