Cross Pollination Is the Key

01.11.2017 |

Episode #6 of the course How to have breakthrough ideas by Eileen Purdy


Premise 1: You want a breakthrough idea.
Premise 2: Ideas are not created in a vacuum.
Conclusion: You should probably stop living in a vacuum.


Leaving Your Idea Vacuum

Breakthrough ideas at their very core require putting together knowledge in different ways, and that is nearly impossible if you are living in a vacuum. No, not an actual vacuum, an idea vacuum.

An idea vacuum is when you surround yourself with people who basically look like you, think like you, shop in the same stores, drink at the same coffee shops, vote like you, watch the same late night comedians, and do the same things you do. By spending your time in this type of comfy idea vacuum, you’re robbing yourself of the essential ingredients that will lead to that breakthrough idea.

So, you need to get out of your idea vacuum. Make a daily practice of exposing yourself to different people, places, ideologies, music, languages, sights, routines, ways of doing things, etc. Take up a new hobby, travel to a new country, read from a different genre. The ways to do this are limitless.


Now, Cross-Pollinate

What I mean by cross-pollinate is that it’s important to intentionally try to make new connections and new insights as you broaden your horizons. Yes, the wider the range in experiences or activities, the greater the chance you will be connecting dots no one has connected before; however, it is important to say that breakthrough ideas require intention and action. Don’t set yourself up for success by broadening your circle of friends, travel, hobbies, and media, only to sit passively by and expect an “Aha!” moment to just fall in your lap.

Set an intentional question for your brain to think and cross-pollinate on. Then either systematically pull from many of your experiences and focus on ways they could combine to create something new, or let your diffuse thinking have the opportunity to work on it behind the scenes (or do both!). Either way, the key is to consciously set up a question you’re trying to answer or a problem you are trying to solve. It might go a little like this: “Brain, I want to connect different dots for a breakthrough idea in how to provide better customer service at my job.”


Why This Works

According to neuroscientist Eve Marder, the only way you can have breakthrough ideas (by connecting things that have never been connected before in a way that has never been done before) is if your neurons are really good at creating new connections with one another. And—drumroll, please—the only way to get your brain into the habit of creating those new neural connections is by learning new things!

Creative ideas get a jumpstart by newness because it breaks through our old habits of thinking. In addition, repetitive experiences actually make it harder for your brain to form new connections. Without learning, imagining, doing new things, or some other form of cognitive novelty, our neurons simply fall out of that habit, making our brains physically less capable of thinking up crazy new possibilities.

Try this quick exercise in cross-pollinating that you can do right at your computer. Make three parallel lists of ten words. The first list? Nouns. The second list? Verbs. The third list? Adjectives. Then look for intriguing new connections between them. Give yourself some time to really noodle over the three lists and play around with different combinations. This exercise is intended to strengthen your ability to create novel connections, no matter how silly, unrealistic, or weird. This type of practice, and the other suggestions in today’s lesson, is exactly what your breakthrough brain is wanting!

Tomorrow, we’ll switch gears and look at some lifestyle choices that create huge breakthrough idea dividends.


Recommended resource

For further information on cross-pollinating, you may check out Maria Popova of She illustrates this point by brilliantly combining ideas and themes from across literary genres and time periods in a fluid and masterful way.


Share with friends