Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s songwriter, was cruising down the highway back to his hometown in rural England when the words came to him:
She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour: 9 a.m.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight
Taupin reached into his glove compartment in search of something, anything to capture the flash of insight. But the glove box was empty: no pen, no pad, no recorder.
The 22-year-old Taupin, veins surging with adrenaline, resorted to his last and only solution: he repeated those 40 words over and over aloud to himself for hours until he arrived at his parents’ house. When his mom and dad approached his car to greet him, he sprinted past them to find the nearest pen.
Those 40 words would become the opening stanza of “Rocket Man,” which soared to the top of the charts upon release and now sits among Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.
You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with your own creative breakthrough. So, in the words of Kevin Hart, let me explain.
We have a cultural myth that creative breakthroughs are reserved for an elite ruling class of people who wear clear-framed glasses and cardigans in L.A. or New York – as if there’s a vending machine of ideas that requires a secret code. But truthfully, there is no creative director, no composer, no artist who can shift a paradigm on demand. That’s because breakthrough ideas have little to do with structure and everything to do with patience, relaxation, and a bit of luck.
Creativity is, by definition, resistant to formulas and techniques. This is why computers will never supplant artists, writers, thinkers and entrepreneurs. Whether its pulling the lyrics to a perennial hit out of thin air or envisioning your brand’s new logo in the shower, there’s virtually no limit to the ideas we can produce. The only downside of those breakthroughs is that they often come when we least expect them, as was the case with Bernie Taupin.
The lyrics to “Rocket Man” fused several influences including Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and Taupin’s own sighting of a shooting star. Taupin struggled to force the lyrics into existence, but it wasn’t until he let his mind wander that those fragments coalesced into a cohesive idea.
We had the same experience at Elasticity a few weeks ago when our team was asked to develop a campaign concept for STD testing. After a mediocre brainstorm and a week of puttering around with bland ideas, we didn’t have much to work with. However, we cranked out 3 concepts within an hour during an impromptu meeting a week later – seemingly out of nowhere.
We have more than 100 trillion synapses in our brains which give us access to an infinite pool of creativity. The caveat is, of course, we can’t force those synapses to work on demand.
In other words, if you’re desperate for a creative breakthrough, your best bet might be to stop trying and hit the road.