The human brain is far, far better at creating than remembering. In fact, research says that a person’s short-term memory seems to be about 20 seconds, with the capacity about 4 items. The brain simply isn’t designed to remember stuff, which is why we make grocery lists and jot down tasks in our planners. As good as we are at keeping a list of what we need to buy for the party, most of us are less inclined to capture our random thoughts and ideas.
How many good ideas have been lost simply because they weren’t written down?
One of the common characteristics of many of the world’s most respected thinkers isn’t their ability to remember, but rather, their knack for capturing and working their ideas on paper, whether it be a simple melody, the first twinkling of a story, a new invention, or simply a random thought that happened to catch their fancy. Such was the case of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels.
The idea of Harry Potter was born while Rowling sat on a train after an exhausting weekend looking for an apartment. “I was travelling back to London…on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head,” Rowling says. “I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six, but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…so I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”i When she finally made it home, as exhausted as she was, she still took the time to write down her ideas before going to bed. Three years later, the first Harry Potter book was finally published. In the twenty years since J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter brand has grown to be worth more than twenty-five billion dollars.
The notion of capturing inspired ideas by writing them down has been around since humans have had the ability to draw. Some paintings on cave walls and ceilings in Europe and Indonesia are believed to be over 35,000 years old.ii
Many of history’s greatest thinkers like Julian of Norwich, Galileo, Hypatia, Aristotle, Plato, Teresa of Avila, Shakespeare, and Kepler were dedicated to writing their ideas down when they arrived. They are remembered in part, because they wrote their ideas down and expanded them. Over 30,000 pages of Da Vinci’s personal notes were found in his home after his death. Thomas Edison filled 3,000 notebooks of 280 pages each documenting his experiments and ideas.
Throughout Europe in late medieval times, particularly during the Enlightenment Era, journals known as “commonplace books” were used to capture and store ideas. The commonplace book was a leather-bound journal filled with blank pages where thoughts, ideas, proverbs, quotations, speeches, and conversations could be recorded. Commonplace books were a sure sign of distinction. Every literate gentleman and many women carried one. Such books continued to be used well into modern times. A generation ago, the commonplace book was replaced by the day planner and today, by the smart phone.
In a recent BIG IDEAS workshop, we discussed the idea of writing as a method for developing insights and getting more Aha! Moments. A twenty-two-year-old in the class rejected the idea of carrying a journal wherever he went. He said the idea simply wouldn’t work for most people his age. Holding up his phone, he said he could text anything more quickly than writing it out. We agreed with him regarding speed. Watching how quickly and effortlessly most people navigate their phones, we know his observation is accurate.
But speed is not the goal when trying to capture and develop complex thoughts and ideas. Writing about an idea, pen to paper, actually creates neural connections that lead to big ideas. The creative part of the brain does its best work when it slows down, which is one of the reasons handwriting is vital to creativity and innovation.
Advancements in technology tie us closer together than ever before, revolutionizing what it means to communicate. We call our loved ones from thousands of miles away. We use FaceTime and Skype. We text and email each other at the push of a button. While these advancements have undoubtedly improved our lives, they also greatly inhibit our ability to think and create.
In order to address many of today’s complex challenges, we need to think on a deeper level than in a text laced with emojis, acronyms, and abbreviations, which is why keeping a journal for capturing ideas with you all of the time is so important. You never know when a good idea is going to strike.