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Work / Life Balance

Developing Your Creative Practice: Tips from Brian Eno

What if you don't have a good idea today? Lessons in training and building your creativity muscles from legendary musician Brian Eno.


Current neuroscience research confirms what creatives intuitively know about being innovative: that it usually happens in the shower. After focusing intently on a project or problem, the brain needs to fully disengage and relax in order for a “Eureka!” moment to arise. It’s often the mundane activities like taking a shower, driving, or taking a walk that lure great ideas to the surface. Composer Steve Reich, for instance, would ride the subway around New York when he was stuck.

Science journalist Jonah Lehrer, referencing a landmark neuroscience study on brain activity during innovation, writes:

“The relaxation phase is crucial. That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers. … One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight.”

The ebb and flow of concentrated focus and total disengagement has been a subject of particular interest to the composer, musician, and producer Brian Eno (U2, Talking Heads, Roxy Music). Drawing on interviews from throughout Eno’s career, Eric Tamm’s book, Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Sound of Color, delves deeply into Eno’s “creative process.” Eno himself calls it:

…a practice of some kind … It quite frequently happens that you’re just treading water for quite a long time. Nothing really dramatic seems to be happening. … And then suddenly everything seems to lock together in a different way. It’s like a crystallization point where you can’t detect any single element having changed. There’s a proverb that says that the fruit takes a long time to ripen, but it falls suddenly … And that seems to be the process.

While neuroscience hasn’t yet been able to develop a foolproof scientific system to spark creativity, an artistic practice, if developed, can grease the wheels for more frequent and higher quality creative moments. As Eno puts it: “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.” He continues:

There’s no point in saying, ‘I don’t have an idea today, so I’ll just smoke some drugs.’ You should stay alert for the moment when a number of things are just ready to collide with one another… The reason to keep working is almost to build a certain mental tone, like people talk about body tone. You have to move quickly when the time comes, and the time might come very infrequently – once or twice a year, or even less.

Craft, he says, “enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired.” He goes on:

The difficulty of always feeling that you ought to be doing something is that you tend to undervalue the times when you’re apparently doing nothing, and those are very important times. It’s the equivalent of the dream time, in your daily life, times when things get sorted out and reshuffled. If you’re constantly awake work-wise you don’t allow that to happen. One of the reasons I have to take distinct breaks when I work is to allow the momentum of a particular direction to run down, so that another one can establish itself.

Throughout his career, Eno has used a grab bag of tools to assist the creative process. “There are lots of ways that you can interfere with it and make it more efficient.”

1. Freeform capture.

Grab from a range of sources without editorializing. According to Tamm, one of Eno’s tactics “involves keeping a microcassette tape recorder on hand at all times and recording any stray ideas that hit him out of the blue – a melody, a rhythm, a verbal phrase.” He’ll then go through and look for links or connections, something that can form the foundation for a new piece of music.

2. Blank state.

Start with new tools, from nothing, and toy around. For example, Eno approaches this by entering the recording studio with no preconceived ideas, only a set of instruments or a few musicians and “just dabble with sounds until something starts to happen that suggests a texture.” When the sound texture evokes a memory or emotion that impression then takes over in guiding the process.

3. Deliberate limitations.

Before a project begins, develop specific limitations. Eno’s example: “this piece is going to be three minutes and nineteen seconds long and it’s going to have changes here, here and here, and there’s going to be a convolution of events here, and there’s going to be a very fast rhythm here with a very slow moving part over the top of it.”

4. Opposing forces.

Sometimes it’s best to generate a forced collision of ideas. Eno would “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.” Dissimilar background and approaches can often evoke fresh thinking.

5. Creative prompts.

In the ‘70s Eno developed his Oblique Strategies cards, a series of prompts modeled after the I Ching to disrupt the process and encourage a new way of encountering a creative problem. On the cards are statements and questions like: “Would anybody want it?” “Try faking it!” “Only a part, not the whole.” “Work at a different speed.” “Disconnect from desire.” “Turn it upside down.” “Use an old idea.” These prompts are a method of generating specifics, which most creatives respond favorably to.

In the end, don’t underestimate your personal feelings about a project. Eno states: “Nearly all the things I do that are of any merit at all start off as just being good fun.” Amen to that.

–> Download Eric Tamm’s Brian Eno e-book for free

How Do You Spark Creative Breakthroughs?

Where do you get your best ideas?
What strategies do you use to give your creative mind a kick?

Comments (41)
  • Joel Zaslofsky

    Google Reader is my best strategy for giving my mind that needed creative kick.  When I’m looking for an innovative future post for my blog or an intriguing topic of conversation for dinner with friends later that night I turn to RSS feeds.  Seeing the ideas, concepts, rambling, pictures and thoughts of others really gets my mind firing on tangents and ideas of my own. 

    I’ve had a few breakthroughs this way and find it works best with – as you state – a period of just “chilling” afterwards to let things marinate in my brain.

  • Theo

    Great article and i love this quote “gather together a group of musicians who wouldn’t normally work together.”- let ideas collide!

  • Outofaces

    I’m a songwriter and whenever I need inspiration, I spin in circles while playing guitar. It seems to open new channels for ideas to flow through.

  • edgarseis

    I like to design and write. I get most of my inspiration while riding my bike.

  • Deskthoughts On...

    It’s very true that ideas come up in pressure-free situations. I used to come up with the best ideas while mowing the lawn, being on the train or drawing doodles.
    I always carry something to write down those ideas – a cell phone, iPod touch or my pocket notebook. This is how they stay longer in my mind.

  • Deskthoughts On...

    It’s very true that ideas come up in pressure-free situations. I used to come up with the best ideas while mowing the lawn, being on the train or drawing doodles.
    I always carry something to write down those ideas – a cell phone, iPod touch or my pocket notebook. This is how they stay longer in my mind.

  • Custom essays

    I found your post really helpful. Thanks for posting such informative content. Keep posting.

  • venece

    I almost fell out of my chair when I read the beginning about getting innovative ideas in the shower. I always tell people I get epiphanies in the shower, no kidding and I just thought “I” was weird

  • ro'shan

    So true, many of my songideas came to me while I was taking a walk. After a while I start singing some stupid things and quiet often some words catch me and force me to go on developing the idea. My old mobile has a recording option and right now I got 73 memo’s full with tiny little melodies which sometimes help me while I am at home writing songs. Thank you and thumbs up fot this article!

  • Jake

    Lol I love the shower as a source of inspiration, so true! I have a beautiful memory of sitting in the rain and having a few good thoughts. Perhaps I should make “relaxing” walking (as opposed to walking to go somewhere) a regular part of my day:) Another great article, thanks guys😀 Xoox

  • Jake

    Lol I love the shower as a source of inspiration, so true! I have a beautiful memory of sitting in the rain and having a few good thoughts. Perhaps I should make “relaxing” walking (as opposed to walking to go somewhere) a regular part of my day:) Another great article, thanks guys😀 Xoox

  • preorder

    Thanks for the tips!

  • j.ricci

    The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, is a twelve week ‘program’ of such sparks. I’ve seen it change many, many lives!

    Thanks, by the way, for this post. It’s spot-on.

  • Suzan St Maur

    I was an advertising copywriter for a long time and in that culture you had to get inspired on cue, on time and THE greatest ideas on the conference table by 09:00 Monday. There’s nothing like a much-needed salary and a twitchy creative director on your back to get those creative ideas flowing, as any other copywriter will tell you.

    In those days we used to find the best way to invite inspiration was to brainstorm, usually with a bottle of wine or three, and often until the small wee hours. A group of creatives bouncing ideas off the walls normally worked, but it was stressful. Very stressful.I love the way you highlight Eno’s point that you shouldn’t feel guilty for just staring out of the window for a while, because by letting one creative stream dribble away you’re making room for a new one to flow in. Yet in commercial environments it’s not always possible to make time for that.For more on this – specifically the old chestnut, “writer’s block” but applying to most creative pursuits, you might like to share an article of mine called “Lifting the curse of writer’s block.” You can catch it here: http://howtowritebetter.net/li

    Suze from http://HowToWriteBetter.net

  • Doncadora

    Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X (technology for colonizing space),  said he gets his ideas in the shower too. I do too. I should go to a spa sometime and see what pops up. That’s it! A spa with wi-fi and water-proof laptops.

    So awesome to read this. Tips from a real master. I’ve been listening to the ambient albums by Brian Eno & Harold Budd, and another with Eno and Robert Fripp. It’ll bring the warm shower to you wherever you are. Highly recommended.

    As a young creative it’s so important to learn from the experienced. Especially when we are young, we tend to think creativity must be pure inspiration all the time. New, new, new. This article outlines the importance of cultivating a practice. Creating space for newness, but also for honing the craft. You need both to be effective. With only inspiration, your a sentimental crackpot. With only craft your an aesthetic expert who lacks soul. With both, your a Brian Eno!

    http://blog.artlarking.com/
    http://www.Artlarking.com

  • ElenMatsushita

    James Brown would sound hawesome produced by Eno. You have to read his books as well. Outstanding visionary.

  • Pask86

    تصميم مواقع
    nice article thank you..

  • Kelvin Hayes

    Hey Don, it seems you and I have similar record collection. I am also a journalist and photographer and my uni dissertation (or thesis if you like) was on Colour Sound or Synesthesia. I met another American recently on Facebook and just from his choice of interests and artists knew I was going to like his work. Collaboration is likely. Would like to know more about your work too. I started a collaborative project last year called 198 collaborations – one for each country more or less but no one was interested. If you are on FB and LI will try and find you. Best, Kelvin Hayes
    http://www.myspace.com/kelvinhayesoff...

  • Ivonesio Ramos

    After the concentrated effort in research, testing, commissioning of ideas and questions, gaps, rough sketches, I relax … and … ta … appears what I was really looking for. Sometimes … ta … takes a while, but never fails!Depois do esforço concentrado em pesquisa, ensaios, colocação de idéias e dúvidas, lacunas, rápidos esboços, eu relaxo … e … tchan … surge o que eu estava realmente procurando. Às vezes o … tchan … demora um pouco, mas nunca falha!

  • JB007

    This IS Eno we’re reading about…the man knows his stuff. I thank God Eno made/makes music. We need his genius more than ever nowadays. Great, helpful article.

  • JB007

    The Spice Girls would sound great produced by Eno…well…

  • Kristjan Aalto

    In the development of ideas is very important the information of all the fundamental aspects of the problem which is in this state a disorderly system, then the process of resolution of the imbalance of the system passes to the phase of intense work in which the ideas are sought that modify and they restore the imbalance and to this we call brainstorming which alone will have answers in the phase of incubation, where the mind is busy playing golf, in the shower having sex or any another alien activity to the problem. Subsequently or during this phase a lighting is produced and there should be attentive to take notes and to communicate the results after define the solutions to the system. This it has been my road to facilitate the creative process to the innovation in the investigation and product development.

  • Niklas Aman

    Very nice article. I’ve learned working from a window or a place seeing people, animals, traffic, nature, weather changes, etc, generates constant input – you never get that creative block. Pauses are good, there need to be off as well as on, otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense, ..or actually it would make a wider meta sense.

  • BSDVisions - Barbara Deer

    Super article, wonderful tips – worth sharing with other creatives, for sure! +++++++++

  • Mark Wagner

    I’ve been teaching art and creativity for years. My two required readings are “The Courage to Create” by Rollo May, and “Art & Fear” by Orland and Bayles. They speak about some of the same things, very helpful! !
    ~Mark Wagner http://www.heartsandbones.comwww.draw...

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