Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a myth of a creature waiting to devour a child just as the mother gave birth. Or maybe it was the plot line of an episode of Angel.
In recent months, I’ve been considering the future of my research project – as in its future outside the walls and support of my postdoc lab. The very thought is both exhilarating and terrifying.
Early in the process, I found myself coming up with ideas, only to immediately shoot them down as stupid, trivial, unfeasible … You get the point. A creature in my mind, that ever present critic, was devouring the children before they even had a chance to breathe, before there was time to see what they would become. Frankly, it was demoralizing, because it quickly fed the flames of that ancient dragon of doubt. “If I can’t even come up with one good idea for this project, what chance do I have of success in this field?”
In my first year or so of grad school, Bear (my PhD mentor) had a chat with the new additions to the group, sharing his perspective of what it takes to succeed in science and how to get that out of our time there. Among his advice was this snippet:
To have good ideas, you need to have many ideas.
Those words replayed in my head recently as I struggled with defining a vision of my future work. I realized that I had mostly been killing ideas before they had even had a moment to breathe. In doing so, I wasn’t just killing those ideas; I was also suffocating the creative process that gave birth to new ideas.
At that moment, I decided to take a different approach. I told the inner critic to shut up and sit down; she’d have her turn. And then I started putting my ideas – all of them – in a document. No filters, no critiques, just questions that interested me and thoughts on how to address them. In the process, a broad framework for the future direction of my project emerged, one that diverged from what I had in mind at the start and around which I was trying to stretch specifics.
Only after I had cataloged ideas and realized a framework did I let the inner critic loose to trim the list and find flaws. I can’t chase every idea, and some are certainly not worth chasing. But now that I can see the ideas on a screen, I can see the potential, instead of just the weaknesses. There’s still plenty of work to do, for both critic and creator, but now it’s a matter of building rather than solely destroying.
So here’s to ideas – however ridiculous they may seem.
I cannot tell you how timely it is that I just came across this post.
I just had a meeting with my PI during which she expressed concern that I don’t come up with enough ideas, or at the very least, that I don’t share them. I’ve spent the past week and a half trying to figure out what happens to my ideas, and whether I’ve ever come up with any good ones. I’ve thought about writing (or typing) my ideas out, and having a standing meeting with her to discuss them, at least until I get better at sharing them on the spot…but then I thought that was a stupid idea too. The mind creature eating baby ideas just as they are born is a great image, and really describes what I think is happening in my own brain.
So, thank you! I am going to write my ideas down and see what happens. It’s nice to feel less alone in this!
Thanks for commenting, Insomniac (love the name & avatar, btw). Many – maybe even most – people I know are very self-critical, like myself. It’s tough in meetings because we worry about something stupid (impostor syndrome can also play a role because we’re afraid of saying something stupid and thusly being outed as a fraud).
There’s also a difference in styles. Some folks think aloud & simply say whatever pops in their heads. Others, like myself, prefer to mull over ideas, process, and integrate before speaking up (this is why I always carry a notebook to seminars, helps me process ideas). Both approaches can promote discussion, just different strokes for different folks. Good luck with your idea book 🙂
I am incredibly self-critical, my inner critic can be totally crippling at times. I need to take a leaf out of your book 🙂
Great post, & cute puppies!
Weirdly enough I was doing a bit of thinking along these lines whilst home at my parents’ for Christmas. They have a huge fish tank, and this one particular kind of fish (my mum told me the name approximately a thousand times but naturally I can’t remember it) carries fertilised eggs in its mouth until one day basically burps about 40 baby fish into the tank… and all the other fish promptly eat them. It’s amazing, gross and way more entertaining than Christmas TV.
Thank you for sharing this great idea. I’m going to use it for my projects in the future. In case you might enjoy more on the same subject, here’s a link to an article “Befriend your Inner Critic”: http://barbararath.com/2013/12/29/befriend-your-inner-critic/. Thanks again! Barbara.Rath.com
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I love this. Bear’s words are perfect, and I’m going to keep them with me as I write and share them with my students when they do, too. Thanks for sharing them!!
Don’t know if this helps, but the image you opened your post with sounds like the one from the Biblical book of The Revelation. The Beast waits to devour the child of The Woman. I offer that because sometimes it is annoying to not be able to remember where you saw/heard of something. I enjoyed your thoughts; they reminded me of something a preacher said recently: He was talking about people who say they always miss all the “good” messages. His reply was that if you are always in the meeting you will never miss the good ones even if you have to sit through some bad ones. Same with ideas I guess. To really see the good ones you’ll have to sit through some bad ones. The good ones are worth the wait though!
I really like this idea. I will use the same type of idea for my next book. Thanks.
I know that voice, because I’ve dealt with it a few times. Learning to deal with it is difficult, but sometimes the most ridiculous ideas can create amazing things. Good luck in the future.
Wow, first of all great read. Secondly, I think it’s too awesome that I happened to see this today because it could not go more hand in hand with a post I made just yesterday entitled “Content: Creation vs. Consumption”
Love it, and I’ll be following and looking forward to more content.
Cheers to ideas and the critics and creators in all of us! You’re making progress. Cheers to that too!
Hi, biochembelle. You might like to take a look at the book Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, by Henriette Klauser. It gives lots of great ideas for silencing your inner critic long enough to capture your fabulous ideas, including your “Shut up” technique. I used to teach adult high school students who were literally frightened to write. When I put this book in their hands, and we practised the techniques, many of them were free to write for the first time in their lives. The book is available as a free online download.
I think writing this piece was one (among hundreds) of your better ideas. So glad you chased this one.
My problem is not having less ideas. I get lot of ideas and even write them down but have never gone through them again. I have a MS WORD file on my desktop named ‘ideas’ but it is like a black hole where ideas are written but I never come out again.
“To have good ideas, you need to have many ideas” I couldn’t agree more. I used to kind of pride myself on being an idea person… until I almost killed if off. Never thought I’d lose or run out of ideas… but I allowed it to happen and it was horrible. I’m working on finding that creative spark again and winning the inner battle! Thank you for your post!
Great strategy to use in all facets of life! 🙂
Thank you for sharing your insights and may your 2014 be overflowing with creative ideas.
I’m gonna open this beer with a sledgehammer, that’s my idea.
I say nothing about [em]executing[/em] all ideas 😉
Leastwise I didn’t kill that idea before it reached my brain.
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I will imbibe them in me so that i can also come over my weaknesses….
You’re right! Hurray for the ideas, and down with the innter critic! 🙂
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Something I can relate to. A great, short read!
Thank you so much for sharing, you could not have been more in line with my recent worries.
Loved reading this. I look forward to reading more.
I have been on WordPress for the past few days, my eternal search to come up with an idea to write something worthwhile has proved to be my biggest hurdle. I take the inspiration from your write-up and will be more active in my writing. A big thanks!!
Thanks for all the comments and reading suggestions! It was good to come back to this post because it’s something I still struggle with.
So entirely true. It’s amazing how our own fears can have control over and stifle us – sometimes without even realizing it’s happening! Thanks for a great post. 🙂
Great post, and quite timely for me. I’m taking part in a picture book challenge, and I hope to come up with five ideas for new concepts this month. Nice to have a reminder to let the ideas flow freely before becoming too critical about them.
This line ‘To have good ideas, you need to have many ideas’, will stay with me for a long time to come. Thanks!
I’m with Mahesh on that. Here’s to ideas….no matter how ridiculous they may seem. 🙂
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Hey, I’m an author. I get lots of ridiculous ideas. But every once in a while there’s that wonderful little spark of an idea that I just look at and love. First, I have to get through the crap ones.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for this! http://bloggableornot.wordpress.com/about/
the thing with a ‘stupid’ idea is that they can change and grow and become better ideas. If you discard them before that.. well then they become nothing. Working with a silly idea can make it something amazing.. but then again.. you also need to know when an idea just isn’t working and you most on to the next one
I loved the advice saying, “To have good ideas, you need to have many ideas.” Being in a grad program myself, there is a lot riding on becoming successful post-grad, and it’s scary to listen to your inner critic b/c you don’t want to even think about failing. Thank you for this post, it helps me realize I’m not alone with my school journey. =)
Good post thanks for sharing. I will revisit from time to time.
Self analysis critically is a positive attitude. It helps us introspect and chaff good out of the mixture of bad and good.
Harbans, I completely agree. Turning a critical eye to my own work is important, but sometimes it goes into overdrive and can inhibit the initial creative process. In such cases, I find it useful to intentionally separate the two processes – generation and analysis.
Yes initially one have to be somewhat tolerant to some extent but as a person picks up the art then he / she can analytically see the work done and then come out with some alternatives.
I love your post – I have to remind myself about it quite often. There is the tendency to have only something perfect to show, a fear of “getting it wrong” in all of us. One piece of advice I read was to give yourself permission to do it badly, no matter how silly, stupid, dumb, unrealistic, etc. That will help loosen you up to feel more comfortable to put out all the ideas and then see what works.
As for the inner critic, I read where SARK had given a presentation and hadn’t felt she had done a very good job. She was on her way out of the studio on to the street to her next appointment when she saw a cop. She went over to him and asked if he would arrest her inner critic and take her to jail for awhile. He was a little surprised but agreed, escorting her inner critic into the backseat and driving off. SARK was then able to go on about her day without all that criticism clouding her mind and spirit. Wish I had thought of that!
“I realized that I had mostly been killing ideas before they had even had a moment to breathe.” I can really relate to this, thanks for your insight!
The inner critic is a horrible thing! I am doing my research paper, not as high level as you only undergrad, but I have doubted myself so many times. The other thing is fear, I think I am afraid that my inner critic is right, and this is crippling me even further.
Your technique of writing down all your ideas is genius, “seeing potential instead of weakness” is a fantastic motto, which I will take into my project, so thank you! 😀
Being critical of ones own work creates masterpieces!
I love Natalie Goldberg’s advice: write. Write whatever comes into your mind. Sit down and write about what you did last summer. Sit down and write about what you didn’t do last summer. Sit down and write what you wish you would have done last summer. Sit down and write what you are glad you didn’t do last summer. Write, and let the rest of it take care of itself (more or less).
Please check out my post: Peacefulness 101
thats a crazy dog?
OMG if that’s your dog, he/she is BEYOND adorable – and I love love LOVE your metaphor posted beneath the pic LMOA.
Were my dogs. Adopted by family when moving to city that was not conducive to keeping them The black and tan one is no longer around (illness). But I still see the blondie whenever I visit my dad – and even when it’s been a year between visits, she still recognizes me 🙂
Thank you for this. I often fight my creative ideas because they aren’t “good enough.” I’m not “smart enough.” It’s time to accept myself as I am and allow my voice to be heard!
Don’t we all hate that inner critic. I so sometimes wish she could wander off and never return.
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Nice post, thank you. I know full well about the inner critic, she can be useful but also a mean little… I never ever thought I’d wind up calling myself a writer and for a long time I had a lot of trouble doing so. I wasn’t published, but I was always writing, always had an idea that felt unhappy being trapped away inside my mind.
I’ve written poetry over the years and my boyfriend told me I should do something with it. So I took his advice and finally this year self-published my poetry debut. My inner critic took along time to let me go ahead and accept the title as such although she had little power over what I actually put on paper. It’s funny though now that I’m published and marketing my book I guess you could say I’ve given her more power.
Nonetheless, I like your decision to go ahead and write everything down, THEN let her loose. That’s how I write stories and even poetry. It’s definitely hard to criticize, edit, and revise your work if it’s all in your head.
Cheers to your work and its future. 🙂
I know the feeling. There are few bad ideas, just forgotten ones.
🙂 And ones that just aren’t in sync with time.
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Love this! And love the pic of the dog haha
It’s good advice. We have a pre-programmed bias that reacts negatively to anything new, so it’s good to learn how to focus on the positive first to counteract that.
I was at a forum this week where academic scientists and engineers were discussing their paths to developing products or techniques and getting them licensed. One nugget seems to fit well with this discussion. One of the “innovators” (as the program described them) said that he often gets ideas when his brain is free, such as when playing tennis. Apparently it’s not uncommon for him to pause a match so he can jot down an idea before continuing. He said that typically most aren’t good ideas, and he ends up throwing them out when he sifts through them later. But as themerchantswife commented, sometimes you have to sit through bad ideas to get to the good ones.
so much to think about, so little time. Love the post, things that make you go hummm!