Catching ideas in flight

Where to start with this one? Where the heck do I start? How do I get it to stay still long enough that I can start?

Threads. Words. Sort-of. Except that as soon as I start to write, it’s gone anyway. Or changed into something else. Or something. Or not.

Have you ever tried to write your dreams? You know, those long, complex, tangled dreams in which everything depends on everything else and there’s a kind of logic to it but there are sudden jumps and sudden changes of place and things return and don’t and things that happen later affect the things that happen earlier or is it the other way round but as soon as you try to put it into words or even more as soon as you pick up a pen to write or draw or something the whole lot vanishes pffft gone…


Where was I? Where’s it gone? And shouldn’t there have been a question-mark after all of that? Except there is now, but it’s not the sentence I mean? And if it was in Spanish there should have been one in front the other way up too to warn that there was a question coming up, shouldn’t there?

Hang on, what’s happened here? Where’s this going? Spanish? What’s Spanish got to do with this? What happened to the, the, the dream thing, is, ish, whatever, but…

I’m lost.

And the ideas that were in that dream were lost too. Or they are now, anyway.

This happens a lot…

Okay, slow down, stop, stop, stop. Let’s pull this back something more tangible, perhaps a bit less blurry, a bit less tangled, give it at least something resembling an anchor, such as Damien Newman’s ‘the Squiggle‘:

It’s sort-of like that, I guess – but this isn’t even the ‘Research’ bit at the left-hand end of the Squiggle, there’s another whole stage that happens before even that part of the Squiggle, and that’s what I’m trying to describe here. And I’m not describing it well, I know – but that’s that’s the whole point, that’s what’s so usual at this very first stage of the process, that it’s so hard to describe, when the words themselves that we need so much seem to vanish into nothingness just as we…

It’s like trying to grasp smoke: it’s there, very definitely there, yet there’s nothing to grasp, nothing to hold on to, it just slips through the fingers. That are trying to write, in this case, but they’re still the same fingers. Probably.

Yeah, I know that there’s lots of cognitive-psychology on this, that there are different parts of the brain involved, and as soon as we start up the physical-world activity to do the writing, the imaginary-world stuff kind of shuts down, so there’s nothing left to write about. Kinda like trying to multi-task with something that isn’t designed to multi-task, or something like that. Maybe.

But all that brain-theory doesn’t say anything about how it feels. All I know is that I find myself kind of rehearsing or framing or testing-out all manner of different ways to phrase something when I’m assembling an idea or a picture in my head – but as soon as I sit down with a notepad or a keyboard, the whole lot vanishes, and what eventually comes out, if I’m lucky, is something much more clunky, much less clear, much less coherent and complete.

Which, unfortunately, then makes it much, much easier for others to misunderstand, to misinterpret, or to attack.

Which, unfortunately, also happens a lot.

Oh well…

So, to bring this back to context, I’m currently working on another

(There it goes – lost again. What was I going to say? – no idea. Stopped for the briefest moment, and it’s all vanished: pfft… Thin air. Gone. Blank. Nothing.

Guess I’d best go make a coffee or something, hope that somehow that’ll help it come back together enough to restart…)


(what was it what was it what was it? – uh, okay, yeah, got it, think I got it… – get back to it before I lose it again – )

…I’m currently working on yet another longish series of posts (probably at least six of them), on another idea or assessment-method or something – about services and disservices – that is really really really important at the enterprise-architecture scale and beyond, but that many people are really really really not going to like, because of what it will necessarily show about the ways in which beliefs and suchlike can and will impact, in really really really destructive ways, in just about everything that we design and do.


In short, it’s vitally important, yet it ain’t gonna be popular. (Understatement of the year?) Again.

Which means I’m going to get attacked for it. Or worse. ‘Shoot-the-messenger’ and all that. Again.

Which means that I have be hyper-careful about how I describe it, so as to forestall or mitigate at least some of those all-too-probable attacks.

Which is turning out to be incredibly hard, because of the aforesaid way in which the words that I need to describe those ideas will just kinda vanish as I get anywhere near them.


And yeah, what makes it even trickier is that this is all architecture-type stuff we’re talking about here. Stuff that’s less about the things or the functions but the ‘non-functionals‘, the qualities, the values; stuff that’s about the connections between the ‘things’ and functions, the betweenness between the between; stuff that’s about the ‘meta-‘ and the big-picture, rather than the concrete, explicit, tangible; stuff that’s often about inherent-uncertainties, about futures, rather than the often-spurious pseudo-certainties of the here-and-now. In other words, stuff that’s not only pretty-much exactly what most people most do not want to hear about, but which is also incredibly hard to describe – not least because so many of the words we need to describe it with don’t even exist.

Kinda like trying to build the scaffolding to hold up a skyscraper whilst standing way up in the sky where the top of the skyscraper will eventually be, with nothing to hold us up there, and all the scaffolding-poles in random piles way down there on the ground, too far out of reach for us to reach. And of the people coming past who care to glance at our predicament, most of them will not help us at all, but instead will try to kick down whatever it is that we do manage to build, as soon as we’ve built it, because the scaffolding looks ugly and the skyscraper isn’t there yet for them to see and use and profit from right now. That’s how it so often feels, anyway. Sigh…

Stressful, to say the least.

Stress that probably doesn’t help, either, in terms of being able to catch, as they drift past, evanescent as smoke, those ideas and words and images that are needed for this. If it’s to make any sense at all, that is.

Oh well. Just an occupational-hazard of the trade, I guess…

And yet I wonder: surely there must be a better way to do this? I presume I can’t be the only person who struggles so much with this – this stage that has to happen before the Squiggle can even get started? If so, how do you cope with this? How do you catch those ideas in flight?

And is there any way that could help all of us to do it any better – to reduce the kind of struggle that you see here in this post?

Over to you for own ideas / experiences / suggestions, perhaps?

7 Comments on “Catching ideas in flight

  1. How do I catch ideas in flight… to reduce the struggle? What a wonderful question, thanks Tom.

    To answer I need to break this question down into its parts…

    How do I catch ideas? With every available method at my disposal, from scribbling on a diary in the dark with the wrong end of the pencil (ineffective, however it still leaves a mark to remind me that I was really motivated at some ungodly hour to wake myself enough to attempt to write and recall) to drawing it, singing it, writing it, photographing it… I use any and every visual method I can put my hands and mind on to catch the idea as it arrises so that I somehow bring it into a tangible form, even if it is often little more than a squiggle.

    How do I catch ideas in flight? The thing with catching ideas in flight, is that we are in flight, poised at the edge of our own psyche, between the earth and the sky, both inside and outside of our own perception, we are in transition… our own unique moving Escher of sense and nonsense. For me the flight bit is pretty cooky, it can be restless, a bit crazy, spontaneous, really urgent and in free fall. Flight is a shamanic art for us humans… retaining poise within the total chaos of what ever is emerging to which I do not yet know the answer and can only feel the possibility. Movement of one form or another really helps me here, not just a flick of the finger movement, but a whole authentic diad of movement, an entire wave of focus that takes me from the idea, through sweat, fluid muscles and full breath to a place of stillness where the idea can finally begin to settle into my physical being and consolidate itself there.

    … to reduce the struggle? If I am really honest with myself, the struggles only arise when I doubt myself or the process of emergence, when I allow myself to be in a lucid state of awakening to a new idea then my experience is one of flow. It is only when I doubt myself, or begin double guessing that pressures begin to exert their force on my emerging idea and the struggles begin. It is in this moment that I have a choice… do I recognise the pressure and succumb to the struggle? or do I give myself permission to regain full focus on the idea?

    So, my question in turn becomes, how do you regain the freedom of flight (permission to be in emergent transition) and the focus on capturing an emerging idea when the struggle becomes evident?

    Happy squiggles.

    • Thanks, Helena – great comments.

      The struggle for me isn’t so much about the medium for getting the ideas down on paper or whatever, but about that transition from what I suppose is almost holographic, to something that’s flat, linear, in world-time or whatever. It often takes me hours to build up an image, a phrasing, a start-point – but exactly as soon as I start to try to capture it in some form, the whole thing vanishes, much as with attempting to write down dreams, and what I’m left with is a slow, torturous process of trying to reconstruct at word-speed something that was much more multi-dimensional than is possible in words alone. It’s not the writing that’s the problem (though that’s hard enough already, and getting harder as the complexity of what I’m trying to describe keeps growing), but that instant of transition back from the mental/whatever-world to the ‘real’-world – there doesn’t seem (for me, anyway) to be any way to maintain the connection across that gap.

      “the struggles only arise when I doubt myself or the process of emergence” – yeah, well aware that that’s a major part of the problem, and ongoing one, too. Pat of this is that I’m trying to find any way which there’s some chance that I can get down what I see into a form form which a) people might understand what the heck it is I’m trying to explain, and b) doesn’t get me attacked yet again, often even by nominal colleagues (which happens a lot… – as can be seen from the number of times on this blog that I’ve tried to develop some thread and had to abandon it halfway through because of the severity of the attacks). It’s also the reason why I tend to write way way way too long, because again I feel I have to explain every possible angle and fragment in order to reduce those attacks. Which doesn’t work because people attack anyway, of course. Oh well… But it is those relentless attacks that bring me to a despairing ‘Why the heck am I even bothering to try to do this?’ space pretty much every day: often the only reason I keep going is that I don’t know what else to do. :bleak-wry-grin:

      “So, my question in turn becomes, how do you regain the freedom of flight (permission to be in emergent transition) and the focus on capturing an emerging idea when the struggle becomes evident?”

      Blunt answer is that I know I don’t have that permission – from a lot of people, anyway. Which then gets internalised, of course, as a really savage Inner Critic, trying to ‘defend’ by blocking myself from being able to write. Kinda awkward, to say the least. Debilitating, definitely. And not fun, of course. Oh well.

      But I’m not much good at anything else, so I guess I’ll just have to keep on with this struggle, yes?

  2. Tom

    Two things. First I really like Helena’s response – amongst other things because it touches on what I have learned to call “many ways of knowing”.

    The second is to do with your something “that many people are really really really not going to like” and it’s actually susceptible to the same approach. If people aren’t going to like it but you’d actually prefer that they did, then you’d be well not to approach it from a propositional/rational angle. Funny thing about people is they don’t take kindly to some guy telling them they’re all screwed up. So tell a story, draw a picture, ask questions – tell it in a way that allows people to reach their own conclusions. That doesn’t mean they’ll all instantly be where you’d like them to be but it opens a discussion. And who know, maybe you’ll learn something from them.

    Good luck

    • Thanks, Stuart.

      I take your point about “tell a story, draw a picture, ask questions” – practical reality is that I already do all of those things, a lot. I’ve tried all of those, I’ve really tried – take a look back through this blog, you’ll find lots and lots and lots of examples of all of them. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t – just like everything else, really.

      “Funny thing about people is they don’t take kindly to some guy telling them they’re all screwed up” – yes, I know: very painfully… Yet at some point we do have to be blunt about this: when everything is as f*cked-up as it is, and yet most people are running away from that fact as hard as they/we can, someone has to do the ‘hey, guys, wake up, we’re running full-tilt towards that cliff!’ bit, otherwise we are all going over that darned cliff.

      If you’re commenting about my recent posts on Zachman or Business Model Canvas, when people build and promote tools that do not and cannot work ‘as advertised’, surely basic business-ethics compel and mandate us to do something about it? To do whatever we can? Otherwise, legally, we too are complicit in the (metaphoric or even literal) crime – Not A Good Idea, surely?

      The blunt reality is that when we’re dealing with a rampant, full-blown paediarchy – which is the situation we’re in right now, as you too know all too well – then sometimes, yes, we do have to be honest and tell them/us that they/we are indeed “all screwed up”. If you’re going to insist that we should never do this, what alternative do you have to offer that might actually work?

      “That doesn’t mean they’ll all instantly be where you’d like them to be but it opens a discussion” – yes, sometimes, it does indeed open up a discussion. More unfortunately, it merely opens me up to yet more attacks – and all too often now it reaches the point where the wounds don’t have a chance to heal before the next attacks come along. So yes, I need to get out there, work more with people – but it’s hard to do that when I struggle with justifiable fear and near-paranoia around even my supposed colleagues. It’s happened so much over the past few years that, as I said to Helena above, I’d dearly like to move on to a different and less pain-filled field if I knew how to do so. Which I don’t. Oh well.

      “And who know, maybe you’ll learn something from them” – yeah, I’m learning all the time. I always have, I always will: please don’t doubt that? Unfortunately, what I’m learning most right now is that I don’t know any way through which I can explain what I see about the dysfunctions of this world, without getting attacked simply for seeing what I see. Which is – as Helena comments above – perhaps one key factor in why I’m struggling so much with getting anything down in tangible form at present. Oh well.

  3. I ALWAYS wear a shirt with a pocket, and I ALWAYS have a bit of paper and a pen in that pocket. Well, sometimes I do take a shower, but trying not to get too graphic here 🙂 Sometimes I get a comment from a neighbor about me walking the dogs with a pen in my T-shirt pocket, Oh well … Some of my best stuff occurs when I’m out with the dogs.

    • Thanks, Doug – good point about using small-sized notepad, I usually carry around a somewhat larger notepad (A5/8″x5″) in my trouser-pocket, but it’s difficult to hold so as to write whilst walking. A smaller-sized notepad (A6/%”x4″ or smaller) would make that easier, as I could hold it open in one hand rather than having to stop to hold it on my knee or grip it in some other awkward way.

      Yet availability of a notepad isn’t itself quite the core problem for me here. As I said in my reply to Helena above, the real problem is that the ideas and images tend to vanish immediately I turn to try to capture them – in other words, they vanish even in the act of reaching for the notepad, so that by the time I have the pen and notepad in hand, they’re already gone. The point about using a smaller notepad is good, because it will increase my chances of capturing at least some of the ideas – yet it still doesn’t fully help with this challenge of how ideas tend evaporate at the very instant of reaching out towards the concrete world.

  4. I know this is probably going ay down in the weeds, Tom, but I’ve struggled with this too. I find that if I can capture even one key word, mentally, even verbally, and then getting that down on paper, it seems to provide a kind of sky-hook to capture more of the the mental construct. This works, to some extent, not only for doggy-rambles, but also dreams, and shower epiphanies. I’m with you though – noting more frustrating than to lose that sure-fire game-changer of an idea. By the way, though, I do find that a certain percentage of the time if I just move on, the idea actually comes back, and if I’m then ready with the butterfly net, I can snag the little beastie.

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