Is it possible to run out of ideas?

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Working in any creative field, be it advertising, film, music, art, fashion or whatever else, ideas are currency. The quality and quantity of those ideas will be a (if not the) key factor in the success or otherwise of our careers. But what happens if we run out of ideas? Or – perhaps even worse, in a way – run out of good ideas?

It’s a scenario we see depressingly often. For example, Oasis’s first album included two of the greatest songs of the last 100 years, Live Forever and Slide Away. But their second album was middling and beyond that they fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. Similarly, at the start of her career Rachel Whiteread created the game-changing ‘House’. But while her PR might talk about a brave exploration of the concept of negative space, the rest of her career has basically been more executions of the same idea.

Why is it that this inertia affects some creative people while others evolve throughout their careers and produce a richly diverse body of work? For example, while Noel Gallagher has struggled creatively, his former nemesis Damon Albarn has created an extraordinary array of music across an amazing range of genres. In contemporary art, Jeremy Deller continues to build an astonishing body of work in all kinds of media. Philip Roth created outstanding work in his youth, his masterpiece – American Pastoral – mid-career and then an amazing run of brilliance at the end of his career. And an artist like Bob Dylan seems to have a creative tap that he can turn on at will, having spent more than five decades putting out masterpieces across almost every musical genre. “I’m just a song and dance man,” he once said. But he’s clearly a phenomenally prolific ideas man, too.

Is hard work the key? Can habit help us – does having ideas beget more ideas? Or do we all have a pre-ordained number of good ideas inside us? And why do they seem to come easier to some people while the rest of us have to bust our arses for them? The frustratingly elusive answer lies somewhere in the middle of these questions. And there’s a clue hidden in the infamous exchange between Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen in the ’80s. Dylan said to Cohen, “I like your song Hallelujah. How long did that take you to write?” Cohen replied, “Oh, the best part of two years.” Then they started talking about a Dylan song called I And I. Cohen said, “How long did you take to write that?” Dylan laughed and said, “Oh, about 15 minutes.”


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

4 Responses to Is it possible to run out of ideas?

  1. dbs81270 says:

    Great thoughts amigo

  2. GC says:

    Its interesting comparing different types of creativity. What goes for one genre isn’t always the same for another.
    Most artists develop their own styles and then work within it for their whole career. We never say of Van Gogh, enough with the swirls man, how about a straight line every now and then, and you could easily argue the Roy Lichenstien only ever had one idea and spent his whole career producing different executions of it.

    With musicians the key to longevity seems to be the ability to embrace new directions and Damon Alburn is a great example but it doesn’t mean you can’t build a great career out of sticking to a formula. Those boys from Oasis did ok for themselves they are still churning it out for their new bands.

    In advertising the onus is on originality so not only can never do the same thing twice, if someone else has done something its also off limits. It makes things hard for creative teams and perhaps it stops some great work. One team may have come up with a great idea and executed it terribly but it stops another team who could execute it brilliantly going anywhere near the idea (even if they weren’t aware it had already been done when they thought if it). Only a long running campaign allows you to explore and idea before the inevitable demand for something new comes along.

  3. antmelder says:

    Hello Guy, how’s it going?

    Thanks for the comment…but I’m not sure I agree. I think creativity is creativity, regardless of media. I’d argue that Van Gogh was a prolific ideas man. He did over 2000 artworks in his life, including self portraits, landscapes, still lifes, portraits and paintings of cypresses, wheat fields and sunflowers. He did the famous stuff in the last two years of his life. But before being influenced by the Impressionists and doing the swirly stuff he drew and painted in lots of different styles. Check out The Potato Eater, for example. Another great example is Banksy. He has a recognisable painting style but his ideas seem almost limitless.

    Regarding “building a great career out of sticking to a formula”, I’m not so sure. Yes, “Those boys from Oasis did ok for themselves, they are still churning it out for their new bands.” But “churning it out” is exactly the problem. Nothing the Gallaghers have produced together or alone has come anywhere near to ‘Live Forever’. Sure, they can keep going but the well is dry. Put it this way, if they were an advertising creative team, they’d be struggling to get a job in a decent agency.

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