Plenty of days I find myself in that state called “antsy in the office”. It often happens when I’m trying to be creative and come up with new ideas. My office is great for certain things but sometimes it’s just too quiet for creativity. Luckily there’s a place a few blocks down the street in my Chicago neighborhood that is practically an idea factory. People looking for ideas seem to congregate here like animals in the wild congregate around a watering hole. So I pack up my netbook and whatever relevant notes I’ve got and head out to a local coffee house named Metropolis Coffee Company.
Once there I order my usual – a large café-au-lait in a big white ceramic mug (and usually a cookie too). Then I find a spot to sit and begin a process. The process starts with watching my fellow patrons and eavesdropping on conversations going on around me. I turn on my netbook to check email or do other web-related time wasting activities. Then at some point ideas start bubbling up and I type them into a document as fast as I can while they come into my mind.
Letting the Muse Whisper in my Ear
This process is actually more a passive experience than an active one. If hard work was all I needed it would be easy. But, of course, it’s not easy. While trying to find good ideas (or let good ideas find me) I often wind up thinking too much and that results in a state of mental lockup like when your computer freezes up. When that happens I need to reboot. I have to back off, clear my head, and try again (“Clear your mind, do not assume anything …”).
Clearing my head is tricky since it involves letting go of whatever I’ve become fixated on. How do you not think about whatever you’re currently obsessing over? That’s tough. I clear my mind by letting myself be distracted. Part of what makes this coffee house an idea generator for me is that there’s a lot going on and it distracts me when I need distraction.
I look up from my keyboard and take in the scene. I notice people at the table in front of me are talking about the layout of a new website to promote their company. Two women at another table next to me are discussing a date one of them had yesterday; it sounds like she’s interested in seeing the guy again. And then behind me I hear a conversation in a language I don’t even understand.
I turn around and recognize a group of Ethiopian immigrants who run a restaurant in the neighborhood. They’re going on about something (it’s Amharic I think – the main language of Ethiopia) and their body language and facial expressions say it’s a serious conversation. One of them makes a gesture holding up his right hand for a moment as he sits back in his chair. They pause, and then all laugh.
Distraction and Surprise
And sure enough, into that open space in my distracted and newly cleared mind, more ideas start flowing again. Cool. I start tapping away on my keyboard again. Thoughts follow one after the other. Then (inevitably) I start concentrating too much and the flow stops. Uh-oh; gotta distract myself again.
I look up. Distraction happens once more. Okay, here comes the next idea…
Many times what bubbles up surprises me or turns out to be nothing like what I thought I was looking for. The best ideas are often the most surprising ones. I don’t know where they come from. But that’s okay. I don’t need to know; just keep them coming.
Is this process of drinking café-au-laits and letting ideas trickle into my head something I could even call work? Or is it just day dreaming?
Michael Hugos is a principal at Center for Systems Innovation [c4si], finding elegant solutions to complex problems; mentoring teams in agile development. He can be reached via his website at www.MichaelHugos.com.