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Hunting the Killer Idea: Nick McFarlane on how he captured the creative process

I lied. I had to. Facing up to the truth wasn’t an option if I was going to land this book deal. I’d had a sniff from a UK publisher. My pitch, that I had an idea to do a book on creativity that looked like it was on acid, had got a bite. The only catch was that they’d come back saying they wanted it delivered in a year’s time. “Can you do it?”

I did the maths in my head. 365 days to research, write, illustrate, design, edit and produce 200 pages. On top of 1 full-time job. Divided by a wife, to the power of 3 children. Hmmm….? I didn’t blink because there was only one correct answer. “No worries,” I lied confidently.

Looking back, I can see that moment embodied so many of the lessons I would learn over the coming year as I studied, dissected and chased the essence of creativity: be naïve, be foolish, be fearless, aim high, extend yourself, fake it ‘til you make it and never give up.

So with that, I set off on a quest to write a book about the creative process, blissfully unaware that the year ahead would be the most challenging creative process I‘d ever have to go through myself.

In the book, I approach creativity from as many different angles as possible because I’m a big believer that there’s never one right way to do things. Instead, there are many different approaches. But one person whose ideas on creativity have resonated is Professor Tina Seelig. She believes that it comes down to three simple things: attitude, knowledge and imagination. She calls the way these work together “The Innovation Engine”.

“Your attitude is the spark which jump-starts your creativity. Without the attitude that you can come up with breakthrough ideas, your Innovation Engine will never get going. Your mindset determines how you interpret and respond to situations and whether you are driven or not to go out and find knowledge.”

Accepting the challenge to write the book in the short amount of time came down to that good old Kiwi can-do attitude that we’ve all been brought up with. Yes, it was going to be tough but I was certain that if I just rolled my sleeves up, I could knock the bastard off.

Next comes the gathering of knowledge. I know the temptation is to start coming up with wonderful ideas as soon as possible but if you don’t know everything about the problem you’re trying to solve, chances are your ideas won’t solve the right problem.

The more knowledge you gain, the more you’re able to utilise it. For example, “the more you know about fishing, the more fish you’re likely to catch. The more fish you catch, the greater knowledge of fishing you gain.” And on it goes. Knowledge builds success builds knowledge builds success…

But here’s an interesting point not to overlook. There are two types of knowledge you need to acquire. The specific and the general. The specific is absolutely everything relating to the problem at hand. You need to turn it inside out and know it like the back of your hand. The second is general. This requires much broader roaming, and is more a way of life than a specific activity. It’s about having a curious mind, a lust for life and a desire to wander off the beaten track. Because it’s the random array of inputs, influences and observations that provide the raw knowledge required for the next stage of idea generation. Imagination.

This is, says Tina Seelig, “the engine that transforms knowledge into new ideas. It is the catalyst required for creative combustion.” The more knowledge you have, the greater the number of possible combinations you can combine together into new formations. Specific information will take you to the heart of the problem. But it’s the more random general information that will take you as far away from it as possible. If you can connect two of those things together in a new and surprising way, what you get is an imaginative leap forward.

So the question then becomes, not how can I be creative, but how do I develop the right attitude? How should I gather and extract knowledge? And when and where’s the best environment to stimulate imagination? (Pssst. If you’re curious, you’ll find these answers in chapter 4).

For me, the book only started coming together halfway through the journey. I’d gathered plenty of specific knowledge about ‘creativity’ but I was wrestling with what I wanted it to be. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to take it. And that was driving me mad.

“I was six months deep into the jungle when the black beasts of doubt finally caught up with me. They circled overhead as I stumbled through the bush searching for a trail that would lead me to the Killer Idea.

What kind of fool was I to think I could hunt down the essence of creativity, capture it and cage it in a book? This creature is simply too wild to ever be contained.

In the distance the deadline roared. A surge of panic welled up from within, tightened its grip around my throat. The vague inklings and half thoughts that swirled around my head were making my vision foggy. My dreams were plagued with horrible nightmares of failure.

Then one night I chanced upon an old journeyman, who was also searching for a path in life. We lit a fire, boiled the billy and he told a tale about how he too was once lost and didn’t know what he was hunting. But, he found his way when he discovered that the process is the prey. When I woke he was gone. The deadline roared again, but this time I knew which direction I was heading.”

Once I’d discovered the essence of what the book was to be about, I was away at a good pace. But there were many low moments when I doubted myself, was lost, had to backtrack and wished that I’d never lied about my capabilities in the first place. 

Throughout the year, I worked on it five nights a week, as well as weekend afternoons. In the end, I managed to squeeze an extra two months out of the publisher, at which point I ramped things up to working seven nights a week and full weekends. Unfortunately the late nights and copious amounts of coffee were turning me slightly crazy. I’d have terrible nightmares every night and then be zombied out at the breakfast table. This was having a bad effect on family life but thankfully my wife managed to hold everything together while I was running around in circles, somewhere deep in the jungle of my mind.

That’s probably the last thing to mention. Creativity is hard. The hunt ain’t easy. You’ll want to give up more often than you believe you’re going to succeed. My only advice is to not give up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Eventually however, I did capture the thing I was hunting for. And from the shadows returned with a Killer Idea that the whole village could feast upon.

For more insights and ideas about the creative process, track down a copy of Hunting the Killer Idea by Nick McFarlane at his website.

We have three copies of McFarlane’s book, Hunting the Killer Idea, to give away. To enter the draw, email us with your best killer idea at [email protected]. 

Killer ideas can be about anything, big or small – as long as they’ve changed your life or someone else’s for the better. For example, Nick’s killer idea was that he decided he was going to write books in his spare time instead of lying on the couch watching TV.

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