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.