Stuck for new ideas? Try Einstein’s method

Continuing the theme of creativity, we have all been in a situation where we need to come up with new ideas – fast. And there may be no colleagues to bounce ideas around, with everyone joining in, tweaking and adding to concepts to create something new. So, how do you generate something new when you’re stuck?

Albert Einstein was a musician in addition to that other job he had, world-renowned physicist. He attributed his early exposure to music as influencing his very way of thinking. He said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music, I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

He would famously take a break from attempting to solve a complex problem by playing the violin. His son, Hans, said, “(w)henever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve his difficulties.”

So, what was going on?

Einstein called it “combinatory play.” He combined concepts in a novel way to restructure the way he looked at the universe. He didn’t invent energy or mass or the speed of light, but he combined them to create his famous formula. And who knows, perhaps the concept of timing in music influenced his concept of the space/time continuum.

Blending music and physics came naturally to him because learning the symbolic language of music at an early age gave him a different approach. It allowed him to observe the linear world of physics through the lens of musical expression. Two separate ways of thinking combine to create a completely different concept.

Combinatory play is an extraordinarily simple way to generate new ideas. Suppose you want to invent a new product. You really want to come up with something different. Here’s what you do:

  1. Make a list of 10 random items (coffee cup, computer, candle, etc.)
  2. Make another list of 10 random items (pen, clock, file cabinet, phone, etc.)
  3. Put the two lists side by side. Here’s where you start to combine.
  4. Draw a line from one list to the other trying different combinations until you find a promising link.
  5. Elaborate it into something new.

For example, combining coffee cup and pen might create a drinking straw that writes, or combining a candle and a clock might inspire a meditation alarm that chimes when the candle burns to a certain point.   You can also combine opposites, like a pencil with an eraser. Or a hammer with a device to remove nails (aka: claw hammer).   The number of objects and number of connections are infinite.

I would love to hear how you apply this concept to your daily activities and the new combinations you create! Please comment below.


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