Knowing what to do with a mind aflame with ideas is important for everyone. But for creative, visionary, idea-oriented, dreamer types, it just may save your life – or at least your relationships.
What do I mean by a mind aflame with ideas? Well this situation may be something you’ve seldom experienced, but imagine what happens in your mind when a new opportunity unexpectedly opens up before you. Suddenly you have trouble focusing on daily life because there’s so much noise in your mind from all of the half-baked thoughts and ideas now rushing around up there connected to this new development. Or, if you’re like me, a little bit of caffeine or even some good music can kick your ideas into overdrive on an almost daily basis. The problem is not just that you should be focusing on your shower, your work, your current conversation, etc., but also that in the moment these thoughts feel very compelling. Your mind feels like it is aflame with very good, breakthrough-type ideas. Perhaps even a bunch of them. When in reality, the vast majority of them are really not that great, or at least not great yet.
Over time I’ve learned that wisdom is needed to channel this rush of ideas in some healthy way. A rush of ideas, a mind aflame, is essentially a rush of creativity. So, while it can be dangerous, it is good, a gift even. God is a creator, and we are made in his image as little re-creators. In the mysteries of human ability, we first “create” in our mind, before creating in the physical world around us. These acts of mini re-creation point to God as the one true creator, the only one able to make something out of nothing, and the one working everything toward a coming age of perfect new creation. Unlike God, we always make something out of something else. This is true in a mind aflame as well. Things we have learned, remembered, intuited, seen, heard, or spoken before suddenly start lighting up in a storm of brand new connections in our brain, due to some kind of stimuli. Again, these flames are good flames, but they need to be managed wisely so that other good things don’t get burnt.
First, you need a place to contain them. Rather than acting on a rush of ideas quickly on the one hand, or trying to shut them all up on the other, have a place where they can be safely stored. Develop some kind of system, some kind of holding pen for these ideas. I like to use a task-management app, Trello, to write down new and captivating ideas. An ideas notebook or journal could serve the same kind of function. Writing them down in a “To Chew On” list accomplishes several good things.
First, in the chance that they end up being good ideas, it keeps me from forgetting them. Most of us who are living in this frenetic age know that this is a real danger. Second, it allows my mind to relax and focus on other things because I know that I’ve written down that idea for later consideration. It results in the good kind of compartmentalization, the freeing kind. Third, writing new ideas down in order to come back to them provides for a period of marination, of sifting, or refining. Some of these ideas will eventually be discarded when in the light of future perspective or experience they are shown to be unhelpful. Or when they simply lose their luster, for one reason or another. Others will prove to be good ideas, but ideas to be given away to someone else because they don’t fit my abilities or opportunities. Still others will prove to be good ideas whose season has not yet come. And this is one of my favorite categories. Because there they sit, waiting, like seeds ready to germinate and sprout at some unknown future date when circumstances, the right people, and resources line up. Every time I come back to consider certain ideas and once again find them to be compelling and sound, my confidence increases that I am indeed supposed to do something with them someday – even if that something is merely to give them away to others. Ideas that have been chewed on and refined for a decade can end up bearing very good fruit when providence finally sets them free.
Let me say this part plainly. If you are an ideas person, a creative, or a visionary, then you need some kind of system like this. Not having some method whereby ideas are recorded, sifted, and sat on can keep you from committing to the actual season and work that God has given you to do now. In the words of Master Yoda, you’ll be like young Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.” Not having a system like this can also lead to all kinds of existential angst as you struggle with the pull of the magnetic visions which march through your head in colorful succession. “How do I know I’m doing what God wants me to be doing if I constantly feel drawn to all of these other seemingly-important things?” By placing these ideas on some kind of metaphorical shelf for periodic viewing, you create space for the possibility that those desires can serve some future unforeseen season, while you free yourself for greater investment in the current calling God has placed on your life.
A lack of a way to channel a mind aflame with ideas can also wreak havoc in your relationships. This happens as you frighten or agitate those around you with yet another wild idea. So, along with a way to contain your ideas, you also need a way to wisely communicate them to those you live and work with. This, not surprisingly, is a lesson I had to learn early on in my marriage. But it’s also been something I’ve had to relearn and communicate well for every team or working relationship that I’ve been a part of. For example, a creative person often blurts out ideas that are fresh off the boat, having just that day or that moment docked in their mind, as it were. The creative knows that merely verbalizing these ideas does not mean that he is actually committing to them, or even that he is seriously considering the idea. But those around the creative don’t know this, and they are left to guess at which stage a given idea is. If they are someone who is wired to not share an idea until it is mature and fully-baked, then they can get positively alarmed at the creative’s constant barrage of big ideas.
It’s up to the visionary-type then to communicate to those around them at what stage is this most recent idea. “Hey, let me a run an interesting idea by you that I’ve never thought about before,” is very different from “This is something I’m beginning to seriously consider,” which is different from “I’ve chewed on this idea for a decade and I think that now is the time to implement it.” If you can learn to orient those around you to the various stages of an idea in your mind, you can keep them from panicking and getting holes burnt in their jackets by the embers of your mind aflame. For new ideas, they need to know that it’s just something you’re tossing around, and that they can help you know whether to pursue it further or not with some dispassionate talking about the various pros and cons. For ideas that are getting serious, they need to know that you are asking for some serious feedback and interaction, even feedback that gets more emotional. For an idea that you are ready to move on, hopefully this is not the first time you are communicating it! If it is, you’ll need to be ready to back up and slow down so that your hearer can experience some of the process your mind has already gone through in refining the idea. Even if it is the first time hearing it, letting them know how long and carefully a certain idea has been considered goes a long way in assuring them that you’re not about to upend your life (or theirs) on a whim.
For those who live or work with an idea person, please understand that God may have placed you in our life for the important job of keeping us from financial ruin, pain, or premature death by bursting the bubbles of our bad ideas (which yes, we think are good). But the manner in which you do this is very important. We tend to get very excited about our ideas, so whenever possible, let us down gently and we are likely to eventually see the light – and even thank you for saving us from some very bad things. You may immediately feel that an idea is simply the worst ever, but a quick and stiff take-down of an idea is likely to cause the visionary-type to feel that you simply can’t see the possibilities that they can, and they’ll go off to chew on it more in isolation – which not the best outcome for anyone involved.
Creatives and idea people, for our part, we need to humbly seek out people who can help us work through our parade of shiny ideas, and genuinely be open to the critical feedback we receive. Sure, sometimes we can see several steps ahead in a way that others can’t. But the downside of this gift is that we often can’t see the ground immediately around us. To put things in terms of eyecare, we are farsighted, so would be wise to travel with some nearsighted counselors.
Yet even though we need systems, thoughtfulness toward others, and the wisdom of a community in order to balance our strengths (like everyone else), a mind aflame with ideas really is a gift from God. Who can explain how exactly this process of mental generation takes place? While never even near the level or kind of supernatural inspiration that the biblical authors experienced, inspiration can sometimes seem the only word in English fit to describe the experience. An idea that simply wasn’t, now is. Things previously not connected are suddenly, surprisingly, beautifully joined – and for the life of us it sure felt like it was something outside of us that made it happen, as if it were breathed into us by something or someone far wiser and more creative than we are. Perhaps there is a downstream category of “natural” inspiration that functions in the human mind simply by nature of our descent from Adam and creation in the image of God. For it’s not only believers who experience a mind aflame with ideas, but even those still cut off from their creator. This is an experience we share with the lost – though believers are the ones who can turn this natural gift into one that is also spiritual. In this way a gift of vision or creativity can, redeemed, sometimes function as a gift of faith.
The next time you experience your mind aflame with ideas, don’t run for the fire extinguisher. Something good is happening. Lean in, seek to record and channel it wisely. Seek to love others through it, even as you guard yourself from being swept away by it. While most of it may not stand the test of time, there may be one nugget, one seed of an idea, that does prove enduring and good. And only God knows the kind of things such an idea is capable of.
Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash