The Three Thirds of Generating Good Ideas

November 10, 2020 by Shun Lee Fong

You’ve experienced it: The Battle for Good, Original Ideas – which usually don’t present themselves easily. Whether going at it alone or with a creative team, somehow, you’ve got to get the best ideas possible. There’s a process you have to go through to do so, and no matter how good you are, that process is difficult. Without wrestling through it, you’ll almost inevitably end up with lackluster ideas. 

How do you get to the best, most original ideas? Brainstorming comes in three distinct phases, and you almost always have to go through all of them to get to the truly great ideas. Here’s what the process of The Three Thirds of Generating Good Ideas looks like: 

The First Third: At first, you get lots of good ideas, but they’re typically pretty obvious. The ideas aren’t very original and often have been done before. This phase can be fun, with lots of quick bursts of creativity, so a lot of people end up stopping here. They pick one of the unoriginal, good ideas and go with it. It works, but it’s been done before. If you’re a person who isn’t content to just go with what’s already been done, you must deny yourself the comfort of an easy idea. You must have the courage to move on to… 

The Second Third: This phase is hard. Your ideas start looking more original, but they often aren’t very good. You exert a lot of creative energy, but there isn’t much payoff for the hard work. The few ideas you generate seem dry and unexciting. You’re tired, your team is tired, and you don’t want to play anymore. But the ideas in this phase aren’t supposed to be exciting, because they’re typically original, bad ideas. Most people get discouraged here and either 1) go back to one of the good, unoriginal ideas they had in the First Third, or 2) quit trying to generate ideas altogether, abandoning the project or goal. 

There’s no skipping the Second Third. Sorry. It will feel like there’s no end to this creative desert, and most people settle or give up early. But if you grit your teeth and press through, you almost always find yourself stumbling into… 

The Third Third: The hard part is you don’t know when you’ll make it to the Third Third, but suddenly you find yourself coming up with a fresh idea that’s actually… hey, that’s not so bad! And then you have another one. And another. And suddenly those not-so-bad ideas begin to accumulate and snowball into even better ideas, gaining momentum until you realize you’re coming up with original ideas that are really good—maybe even great! 

What looks like brilliant creativity to others often is just the hard-fought commitment to go through the whole process to get to the place of truly good, original ideas. And if you’re one of the few people who get there, the creative experience is amazing. Here are a few pointers to keep yourself moving forward to The Third Third of Idea Generation: 

  1. Since there’s no bypassing the first two Thirds, you have to make sure you give yourself enough time to slog through them so you can get to the Third Third.
  2. Call bad and unoriginal ideas for what they are. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If you don’t, you’ll be tempted to go with an idea that is mediocre or has already been done before.
  3. Take a step back occasionally and identify where you are in the process. Are you in the joy of the First Third? The slumps of the Second Third? Good, keep going. Be aware of which Third you’re in, so you can encourage yourself to keep pressing onward.
  4. Commit to getting to the Third Third and its good, original ideas. This frees you to have bad and/or unoriginal ideas—without being hard on yourself—and discard them in favor of what you know is waiting for you when you break through.

Shun Lee Fong

Shun Lee is the President & Creative Director of The Greenhouse and sits on the Board of Directors. He is an actor, writer, musician, and the CEO & creative principal of Genuine Productions, LLC, which focuses on film, new media, and publishing. He graduated from Creighton University with a degree in journalism & mass communications and from the University of Iowa with a Juris Doctorate, after which he practiced law for five years, focusing on civil litigation, corporate transactions, intellectual property, and media law. He went on to pursue professional acting, writing, and other creative opportunities. He has performed in film, theater, commercial, voiceover, and print, and is a member of SAG-AFTRA. He’s spent significant time on stage and in the recording studio as a songwriter and multi-instrumental musician. He has written a number of screenplays, articles, and other works and is an often-requested speaker. He is the author of The Saints & The Poets, a series of essays on creativity and leadership. He teaches mass media & entertainment law at several universities, and serves as a creative consultant for individuals and teams.

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