For many people, if you are told to think of a wacky scientist, the name of Nikola Tesla usually comes up at the top of the list.
Anyone remember his Tesla coil in “Command and Conquer: Red Alert”? I always loved that thing when playing the game on my computer. Unfortunately this was one of his ideas that did not see mass production.
He was a veritable genius who came up with very creative ideas, and his propensity for first principles thinking can serve as an inspiration for any budding inventor in training.
Tesla was a very original thinker and one technique that he used to come up with ideas is visualization. He would literally picture his inventions in his head.
This is something that he learned to do through experience and it can be learned by you as well.
As a boy, his head was full of things that annoyed him and so he started using the visualization technique to get rid of these thoughts:
“By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish efforts to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, businessman or artist.“
The first step of the visualization method is the incubation period. You gather building blocks of knowledge and let your mind ruminate on them in the background:
“Here in brief, is my own method: after experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.“
In the second step, there is a period of direct effort, or thinking of the specifics:
“Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.“
The mind starts playing around with all the different building blocks and then connects them subconsciously.
“The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.”
The key is to think of everything in your mind first, to examine different features and make improvements to this mental model before you put anything on paper:
“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.“
An important thing to remember is to always keep the big picture in mind and start with a holistic view before you start working on the details:
“Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.“
Tesla came up with many great inventions using this method:
“The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.“
What are the ways that you can put this type of thinking into practice?
Visualization basically means thinking in pictures and this is a very right-brain type of thinking. Many Renaissance Men of old used this technique extensively.
Leonardo da Vinci is an example of one man who thought invention, knowledge and pictures were intertwined. He could imagine something in his head and then put it down on paper.
He started off as a painter, trying to put what his eyes saw in front of him on canvas. This gave him an ability to see things with all their full details.
This can be a useful exercise for you as well. Start learning how to draw. Draw things that you see in front of you. Try to recreate them on paper, then move onto drawing things that you do not see, but only imagine. This is one way to progress up onto visualization inside your head.
One exercise that you can do is to take a picture out of a magazine and then try to copy it on a piece of paper. Once you are good at copying things, try to change your drawings up a bit. What things you think are missing from the picture? What could you change? Think of these different modifications and draw them on paper.
Another way to learn to visualize images inside your head could be through writing. Writers create a whole world in their mind and then describe it on paper. Their goal is to be able to induce their readers to create pictures inside their own heads when reading their books.
So just get out a piece of paper and start writing. Write about anything. One exercise could be to recreate your favorite scene from a movie. Describe it in your head first, then write down the description on paper.
Once you have done this, then try to imagine alternatives. Think about them and write them down. Try to describe as many details of the scenes as you can. If there were flowers in the scene, what color were they, what did they smell like, what did they make you feel? The more descriptive you are, the more developed your skills of visualization will be.
If you are having trouble being descriptive, then watch these videos:
These are examples of description challenges. Do you think you can give good instructions on how to create a peanut butter sandwich?
Surprisingly, most people can’t.
If you write something generic like “put the peanut butter on the bread“, then a person following these instructions literally could just take the entire jar and put it on the bread. You see what I am getting at?
If you know how to give clear and precise directions, then you are very likely good at visualizing things. These types of games are a good practice.
Learning to think visually is also very similar to learning to be funny. Go back to my guide to being funny. There Jerry Seinfeld mentions something called the third eye. Picturing things in your head is sometimes called the mind’s eye.
If you are bad at making pictures inside your brain, then you need to do what the comics do and start to reframing the way you think about the world. Going through the guide on humor that I wrote can really help you with that.
Just like with anything else, being good at visualizing things inside your head is all about practice. The more you practice, the better you get.
Nikola Tesla mentioned that he learned this technique, so he wasn’t good at it at the beginning. However throught practice, he got better and better, until the technique became the cornerstone of his creative process.