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Your most creative ideas aren’t your first

Today, I’ve asked Adam Alter to share his Tip of the Week. 

“I have no idea what to do with 1,000 tennis balls!”

My student Nick was frustrated with the assignment. I’d asked the students to imagine they were working at the U.S. Open tennis tournament. After the tournament ended, a supervisor offered them the lightly used tennis balls hit during the event by stars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Their job was to sell the balls for a profit.

“I had a couple of good ideas at first,” Nick said. “I could sell them as dog toys or to hospitals that could put them on the bottom of walker frames to keep them from slipping.” Then he struggled to think of more options and decided that was the best he could do.

Most people believe that good ideas come quickly or not at all—but it turns out that’s not the case. Researchers call this the creative cliff illusion, the sense that we’re unlikely to land on good ideas if they don’t tumble out the minute we start thinking.

The truth, though, is that the best ideas often come later. Your first ideas tend to reflect common wisdom, and thinking like everyone else isn’t a recipe for creativity. The solution is to persist, even though persevering feels hard. If you continue working, more interesting and original ideas will emerge.   

I explained this to the class, and we spent another 10 minutes thinking together. Nick realized that he could sell the balls using two different strategies: selling a small portion for a lot of money as signed souvenirs to tennis fanatics and the rest at a discount to tennis schools serving underprivileged kids.   

Don’t assume your first ideas are always your best ones.   

Do keep brainstorming after you think you’re out of new ideas. Explain to the young people in your life that it’s worth spending 10-15 minutes longer on a task, because the best ideas are likely just around the corner.

With creativity and gratitude,


Adam Alter is a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the author, most recently, of Anatomy of a Breakthrough: How to Get Unstuck When It Matters Most.