Where Do Great Ideas Come From?

Short Answer: they just pop into our heads, and the only thing we can do to help is to get out of the way.

This post is part of a series, introducing my book Psalms for the City.
Back to Main Psalms Page

Longer Answer: watch the video further down this page.

It’s a talk I gave quite a while ago.

One of the other speakers at that event was the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. What I remember about his talk, some years later, was the wonderful observation that we only have 26 letters in the alphabet, but every day we have the chance to say something we never said before.

The performer immediately before me, as I recall, played the flute with his nostrils. And you don’t get to say that very often.


The Original Talk, In Full


Blimey, what a reputation to live up to – “a master of improvisation”! That doesn’t allow me any room to fail does it?

Which is key to improvisation, the willingness to embrace the possibility of failure. You don’t love failure, you love the possibility of failure, because if there’s no possibility of failure, is it really worth doing anything at all?

So, yeah, they sent me the brief for this talk some time ago. “Where do great ideas come from?”

And I went, Yep, I’m sure I can do that. And I put it away. Then this morning I looked at it and it said, “Where did great ideas come from?” And I really haven’t the faintest idea. I got in a bit of a funk and a panic. I felt like, Oh, God. Oh yeah, huge pressure. I mean, this is being filmed, isn’t it?

So I want to explain to you what that felt like. Please take a look at one of your neighbours, especially one you don’t know already. Just have a look. Say hello.

Thank you.

Now, now in a moment I’m going to ask you to do something. I’m going to ask you to turn to that neighbour and say something awesomely original

Is that okay?

But not yet.

How are you feeling now?

Yeah, that’s how I felt this morning and then into the afternoon, and in fact as I cycled to the tube and then got on the tube, and I wrote some notes, and I went, aaaargh.

Anyway, so that’s how it can be. And one of the key insights of of improvisation is don’t be original. Just be obvious. Because your obvious is really original to someone else. I mean, those guys just now [playing flute with their nostrils] that was their obvious!

So I urge you to think about being obvious. Just turn to that neighbour again and say something obvious. Relax. Something obvious: whatever.

Okay, thank you. Wow, what a lot of happiness comes from saying something really obvious. Maybe I should leave at this point.


So we’re intimidated by variety, by variety and unboundedness. Once I started getting my vegetables delivered in a box, I started to be really creative, because I didn’t order a cabbage but now I’ve got one I have to do something interesting. You see what I mean? You restrict yourself and you become more creative.

Another reason “being creative” is intimidating is because we live in a society that thinks the people who are creative – the ones who do great things and have great ideas – are sort of “those people over there”. They’re geniuses.

And we’re over here. This idea of a genius comes from the Enlightenment. If you think about so called primitive societies, where everyone’s really creative, it’s often because they believe that they’re doing the work on behalf of God – they’re sort of transmitting something. So there’s a lovely story, a true story, about people who live in Greenland and carve walrus tusks. And they don’t blame themselves if it comes out badly. They say “God put a not very interesting thing inside that tusk.” It’s not their fault. They’re relaxed, detached. They’re transmitting for God.

The word inspiration comes from being breathed into by God. If you find any of this difficult, just pretend there’s a God. That way, it’s not all about you. “I didn’t do it. It was God.”


On the subject of being a mere transmitter… I’m standing here saying stuff I owe to other people. The painter Billy Childish told me something once which provided a lovely sense of relief. He said it taken him years and years to stop caring what other people thought of his paintings – and it took him a few more years to stop caring what he himself thought of his paintings.

[Perhaps because of that] he’s incredibly prolific. But everyone comes up with stuff. It’s like, when you’re in the bath it doesn’t take a lot of effort to daydream, does it? You just imagine. It’s relaxing, when you can get yourself into that state.

Good ideas come from that sort of experience. When you’re free and relaxed, they come forward like nobody’s business.

[Forgive me. I stopped transcribing at this point.]