Intergalactic Thinking in Everyday Life

Electrical engineer Philo Farnsworth, the man who made the breakthrough in the development of television, is said to have found his inspiration while he was tilling a potato field. Row by row, Farnsworth maneuvered his horse-drawn harrow back and forth, suddenly realizing that an electron beam could scan images the same way, back and forth, on a picture screen.

A number of years ago I was about to develop a TV campaign for a small breakfast cereal company. As I sat in on the preliminary meeting with the client, the media pros from my agency were telling the client that the best way to reach cereal consumers was morning TV. "TV?" the client said incredulously. "I can't even afford radio." That gave me the idea of doing a radio commercial on TV which was much more economical to produce and helped drive home one of the main points of the commercial: Because we don't spend big bucks on advertising, we pass the savings on to you.

Rocker Patti Smith tells a story of how she was inspired to write a song about helicopters in Vietnam when she looked up in a recording studio and saw ceiling fans spinning their whirlybird-like rotors.

You can make lightning strike.

You don't have to wait until you're plowing a field or watching an industrial fan. You need not physically travel to another place to be struck by inspiration in this way. Did Philo Farnsworth have to be in a potato field to have been inspired by a potato field? No. He only had to think of that back and forth movement of a tractor to come up with his revolutionary idea. He could have gotten the same inspiration by reading a book line by line, by knitting a sweater row by row, or just by thinking about farming, reading, or knitting.

What follows is the strict, disciplined way to use Intergalactic Thinking. It's the method I use in leading group brainstorming sessions and in coaching people at my Creativity Workshops. I suggest that you use this most disciplined process early on. As you begin to see the potential of this method, you'll use it often and become really good at it.

Here's how it works. Simply think of a galaxy of thought outside your everyday realm. I usually suggest people choose a galaxy that's fairly familiar, one very unrelated to their line of work, and one with many, many data points. I love using galaxies such as "the farm," "the ocean," or "the circus." I don't like galaxies with relatively few data points—like backgammon, taxidermy, or Russian musical instruments.

Start by picking a few data points in the galaxy of choice. If it's the ocean, you might choose "sand," "starfish," "boats," and "wind." Then, just try to connect these seemingly unconnected concepts to the problem at hand.

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