curiosity ~ presence ~ creativity

the idea catcher

Catching Ideas - by Dave Rowley

“I have so many ideas that I’m lucky if I don’t trip over them each morning.”


I love the image of Bach tiptoeing through his room, over ideas strewn on the floor like discarded underwear.

Isn’t that just how creativity works, too? Ideas are abundant. Having ideas is much easier than bringing them into the world.

an embarrassment of brilliance

When looking for a good metaphor I always begin with nature. And the abundance of creative activity in nature amounts to an embarrassment of brilliance: millions of eggs laid by sea turtles on a beach on a single night; countless fruit rotting under countless trees; the outrageousness of Spring, where whole landscapes burst into bloom for a few weeks.

Maybe you’ve experienced one of those lazy days sitting in the garden, trees swaying, bees droning in the background, as idea after idea flows through your mind, only to be swept away as you fall into a nap. Or maybe your ideas arrive in the shower. Or you receive wild visions while stuck in traffic. You, too, are the conduit for an embarrassment of brilliance.

Like Bach, ideas are floating all around us like a rabble of butterflies. The next step involves action. We need to pick up an imaginary butterfly net and snatch the ideas we most resonate with, the ones we commit to working on.

why it’s hard to move from ‘idea’ to ‘action’

Once we commit to an idea it is removed from the safe bubble marked ‘daydream’ and we start to make a place for it in the real world. Undertaking this process means to risk mucking it up, or being laughed at,  ridiculed.

I have piles of notebooks that I keep in a red box, each one filled with sketches, doodles, ideas. I love that box. It’s like a bright red cocoon for my ideas. They sit there like fat little grubs, readying themselves for the day they’ll burst out into the world.

Flipping through my notebooks can be like walking through a butterfly pavilion.

I can safely watch all my ideas and sketches from here, some more viable than others; there goes a lime green one floating up to the canvas ceiling, while another struggles to free its soggy orange wings from the edge of a water feature.

But this is an exercise in separation, too. I keep myself apart and safely view my ideas with both hands tucked into pockets to avoid squashing anything.

in order to create

We need to get involved, no more viewing from a distance, it’s time to pull out that net and commit.

Problem: I often find a sense of dread rising when it’s time to do that.

Sometimes, dread comes from the tension between the ideal version of the idea in my head and the flawed version which my limited abilities will actually produce.

And it’s true, the flaws will be there. Ideas are delicate things, their wings can be easily torn, they might not adapt well to a new environment. But the work of adding beauty and meaning to the world involves the realization that a lot of ideas just wont make it. There’s no need to take that personally, it’s just the truth.

And the beauty and meaning we’re talking about there is the singular beauty and meaning that comes filtered through you, and your perfectly flawed life. That’s the only stuff you can bring into the world.

into action

Here are some tips for moving from idea to creation. Let’s snatch these ideas as they float past, then do something with them.

start small

Small starts are a great way to build momentum. Once you begin the transition from ‘idea’ to ‘action’ it’s like adding oxygen to kindling. I’m an anxious starter and have learned over time to build in small, non-intimidating actions at the start of each project. For writing, noticing works well, for creating art sharpening pencils, organizing paintbrushes, paper can be enough to get me making those first few marks and the project just starts taking over and brushes any nervous energy away.

fail often

Lowering the stakes is a great way to begin a project. Realizing that my self-worth is not tied to every blog post, painting, or workshop that I create. Blessed relief! Is it really a problem if this blog post tanks? or if an illustration looks a bit out of whack? No. It’s tempting to aim for perfection but what I’m learning is that the more I’m prepared to fail the more I produce. And BONUS: the quality of my work improves dramatically.

give it some air

I used to be a drug and alcohol worker, and one thing i did with clients was to sit with them as they wrote down what they saw as the ‘good’ and ‘less good’ aspects of their substance use. This exercise had a profound effect on people, it was often the first time that all the desires, consequences and judgements, good and bad, that had been swirling around in their heads was released, and they had a different perspective on them.

You can get this same effect with your ideas–by telling someone else about it, or putting it into another format–I often sketch my blog post ideas, or write a mini description of an illustration I want to do. A simple shift in perspective can really freshen things up.


Ideas are tender beings, sometimes they just need to work in the dark for a while. It’s like being in a cocoon, if it’s opened up too soon everything is lost. No one can tell you when, either. Only you can know.

leave foot prints

At 5 years of age I got a pair of ‘Bata Scout’ school shoes. They had lion paw prints stamped into the sole, and at the back of the shoe, just above the heel, was a tiny opening with a secret compass tucked inside. I remember walking in the dirt and checking out my foot prints with the air of a seasoned jungle explorer.

We can also leave footprints of our creative projects. I keep notes of each stage of creation whenever possible. When a project tanks, it’s footprints are left behind for you to retrace and get a sense of where and why things went wrong. Sometimes you can even pick up a failed idea and set it in a new direction.

how about you?

What’s your favorite way to get from ‘idea’ to ‘action’? Do you use some of the methods outlined here, or do you have your own strategies? If so, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

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20 Responses to the idea catcher

  1. Patti says:

    Love that J.S. Bach quote!

    I think I mostly use your incubation method to get an idea going. I have all kinds of notes of things that sound interesting or exciting. I usually set them aside until one of them just sort of blossoms out at me and I can’t help but pluck it and get started on it.

    I use the start small method, too, just moving ahead in little steps when I’m experimenting on something.

    Your red box of notebooks sounds very energizing – I’ll bet the air around it practically vibrates!

  2. Dave says:

    Hi Patti,

    I’m very fond of incubation too.

    Sometimes I let things sit for too long, but mostly ideas seem to benefit from being left to stew in their own juices. Working with small steps has been such a help for me as well, I get easily overwhelmed and small steps help with that.

    I never thought about it before, but yes, that red box has some pretty bright energy!

  3. I love your butterfly metaphor, Dave,

    And especially this description of your box of notebooks:

    “It’s like a bright red cocoon for my ideas. They sit there like fat little grubs, readying themselves for the day they’ll burst out into the world.”

    Funny, isn’t it, how hard it is to coax a butterfly into doing something productive? Far more fun just to watch their aerial maneuvers.

    For the most part, I’m a fairly private person. But I have found that the best way for me to convert an idea into action is to share that idea with one or more friends. Get some feedback and fresh points of view.

    I have the most trouble allowing myself to “fail often.” You’re absolutely right about that one. I’ll work on that.

    Thanks for yet another delightful column, Dave!

    • Dave says:

      Hi Jim,

      I love watching the aerial maneuvers, of butterflies and ideas, I could watch both all day and happily produce nothing :)

      I’m also a private person, and find sharing my ideas a difficult thing to do, but also one of the most helpful things. As for failing, ouch!, but it does help.


  4. Priska says:

    I’m a bit of an iperson, so my ideas mostly end up on some iproduct. Out walking iphone, reading ipad etc. This morning I gathered ideas for my blog post surrounded by ieverything, reading this I laughed at the thought of releasing my ideas so they can begine to form from my ibubble.

  5. Dave says:

    Hi Priska,


    they all seem to go well together! All those devices are great collectors of ideas and also give you the option to do something great with them at will. Sounds like a great system.


  6. Bobbi Emel says:

    Dave, I just wanted you to know that your post reminded me of one of my favorite poems:

    When I Met My Muse

    I glanced at her and took my glasses
    off–they were still singing. They buzzed
    like a locust on the coffee table and then
    ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
    sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
    knew that nails up there took a new grip
    on whatever they touched. “I am your own
    way of looking at things,” she said. “When
    you allow me to live with you, every
    glance at the world around you will be
    a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.
    ~William Stafford

  7. Such a beautifully written treatise on the delicacy of our fragile ideas Dave! I really love this. (And I love the poem Bobbi shared here too!)

    I think starting small is a huge tip to turning those nascent little things into reality. And even once started, continuing on with baby steps can prevent me from abandoning ship at the first hint of imperfections. But ah, I’m still learning about all this. My addiction to perfection and unwillingess to fail has left so many of my ideas in their cocoons… and alas, I have no red box to return to to retrieve them. I might have to start one!

    • Dave says:

      Hi Sarah,

      Yes! to small steps at every stage, so true. And I’m still learning at all of this, too. Definitely start a ‘red box’ of your own, we want lots of your ideas making their way into the world!


  8. Amit Amin says:

    Great ideas Dave – I too am an embarrassment of brilliance (aren’t we all?).

    To be honest, I’m not so good at bridging the gap between idea and action. The problem, I think, is that my brain is good at grasping the end benefits (e.g. having a beautiful book), and bad at appreciating all the work involved :)

    I’ve found that doing multiple things at once works best – just one or two techniques alone is usually insufficient. I could use some work on all of the ones you mentioned…

    • Dave says:

      Hi Amit,

      Yes! I believe everyone has an embarrassment of brilliance. And from where I sit you always seem pretty adept at bridging the gap between idea and action.

      I like what you say about multiple techniques, a range of approaches allows us to deal with a range of circumstances and moods.


  9. Gary Korisko says:


    It never ceases to amaze me how differently you and I communicate very, very similar thoughts. In answer to your question… I am a big fan of incubation. Letting it breathe, going away from it, and letting it ferment.

    I’m also a HUGE fan of writing down EVERYTHING. My box isn’t red, but it it full to the brim just like yours. Sitting next to me right now in Chicago Midway airport is an 80% full composition notebook with luggage claim stickers completely covering the front.

    Regardless of your method of collecting and maturing ideas, I think the most important point of your post is: Collect and mature your ideas. :)

    Good advice, a great reminder – and an eloquent post. We all have interesting, special ideas…but they will never see the light of day unless we latch on to, record, and develop them.

    I really enjoyed this. Nice work!

    • Dave says:

      Hi Gary,

      I liked hearing about your composition book covered in luggage claim stickers. One important aspect of collection is finding a receptacle that suits us. Yours sounds very ‘you': well travelled, pragmatic, efficient.

      And it’s more than just a nice touch; if our way of collecting our ideas and impressions is one that fits our personality and makes us feel good, then we are more liable to use it and relish the experience.


  10. Dave,

    You rocked this post! This definitely won’t go in the dustbin of your creative pursuits.

    The part that sticks out most – although many other parts stick out too – is this: “…dread comes from the tension between the ideal version of the idea in my head, and the flawed version which my limited abilities will actually produce.”

    I’ve found that the best way to turn my ideas into action, and ultimately something concrete that can be seen or heard, is to get beyond the question of “why?” as quickly as possible. Although “why?” is the first question I ask about pretty much anything, dwelling on it for too long paralyzes my ability to move on to, “OK. So how do I make this happen?” It’s only after someone shows me how to turn an abstraction in my brain into something that another person can interact with that I feel empowered to create. Starting small and incubating SHOULD work for me, but they normally aren’t enough until I can see a more complete picture. Show me a puzzle half-way put together and I’ll figure out how to put the rest together. But empty out a giant puzzle on the table and tell me, “OK, go.” will get me nowhere quick.

    It looks like I could use some alternate methods of making things happen. Now to find out how.

    • Dave says:

      Hi Joel,

      Your point about asking “why?” is really interesting. I can see how it leads to paralysis if dwelled on for too long, it’s a useful question but not really one that inspires movement.

      I get what you say about incubation, too. there’s a point where letting something just sit there doesn’t advance things. Incubation is deceptive in that it seems like not much is happening, but incubation is a very active process.

      To return to the old cocoon metaphor, the juices inside completely break down the body of the caterpillar and remake it in its new form. In the case of the puzzle, moving those pieces around and allowing patterns to surface would probably count as an incubation process too.

      Incubation is a term loosely thrown around in connection with the creative process, and I like the idea of looking into it more deeply and seeing what hidden gems might be found in there.

  11. Ciara Conlon says:

    A big shift in my life came when I stopped using my head to incubate the thousands of ideas and started to write them down as they come. How I managed to focus long enough to write my book was when I asked myself this question “What’s the one thing you could do this year to make it your best yet?” My answer was finish my book, then it became my single focus I never doubted my decision and worked predominantly on the book until it was finished. When ideas came I’d write them down and go back to the book. I’m currently finding it difficult to make a decision where to focus my attention. I have two eBooks I want to write and keep changing my mind which one I will start. I think I may take your advice and start a little on both until the one shows itself to me

    • Dave says:

      Hi Ciara,

      When I let ideas run around in my head for too long they tend to fizzle out, so I can relate to what you’re saying there. You put it well–making the commitment to capturing those ideas makes all the difference!

      I love your question and your way of dealing with new ideas while you were writing your book. Not to mention the fact that writing a book is a prime example of moving from idea to action!


  12. Ralph says:

    Giving it some air is a great tip. Most great ideas are right in front of us but we try to hard to see them so we miss them. Stepping back and sleeping on it makes a difference.

    Thats how “Think and Grow Rich” got its title. The publisher originally wanted to call it “Use Noodle to Get the Boodle”. What???

  13. Dave says:

    Hi Ralph,

    You’re right that sometimes we try way too hard to see our ideas, I can sure relate to that. And sleep is my favourite way to incubate!


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