Little Idea Elves

Do you know the story of the Elves and the Shoemaker?

Here it is, in a nutshell:

A poor shoemaker generously gives away his last pair of shoes to a person in need, even though he only has enough leather remaining to make a single pair of shoes. 

That night, tired and worried, he cuts out the leather, arranges all the pieces, and then goes to bed.

Upon waking, he finds that elves had assembled the leather pieces into a fine pair of shoes. 

He is able to sell the shoes for enough money to make TWO pairs of shoes the next day: one pair to sell at a nice profit, and one pair to give away. 

The cycle continues, night after night.  With the aid of the elves, he continues to expand his business and also help the needy.

Eventually, with his vast resources and know-how, he constructs a pair of high-tech boots, and uses them fight crime as Doctor Dropkick, a vigilante super-hero.  

(okay, maybe not that last part)


I’ve found that the same thing happens to me, where I get a kind of “magical help” working on creative problems. 

During the evening, I will mull over a design or coding problem — running into dead ends, going around in circles, etc.  After I’ve broken apart the problem and have all of the pieces of the mental puzzle listed out (on a notepad or in a text file), I give up and go to bed.

The next morning, when I wake up, grab a coffee, and sit down in front of my laptop, I get unstuck — without fail! — usually within the first 10 minutes. 

If it’s a small problem or a coding bug, a good solution will appear.  For bigger problems, I might not have a complete answer yet, but I will see a new path forward that didn’t occur to me before. 

Some might call this divine inspiration.  But in my opinion, the human brain is so complex (about 100 billion neurons), that I believe it’s perfectly capable of working on sticky problems as a “background task”.  We just don’t know what the subconscious mechanisms of creativity are yet.

I’m fine with not knowing how it works.  I’m just happy that I can rely on it.

By the way, that’s why I often say that I work on things in calendar time, not clock time.  Clock time is all about the hours you put in.  Like chopping wood — the longer you keep at it, the more you get done. 

In my experience, that’s not the way creative work works.  Like the shoemaker, you take some time to collect and organize the raw material (e.g. a rough draft, possible solutions, unknowns, worries), then wait and trust that the answers will come.  And that usually happens on a daily rhythm, or calendar time.

By the way, never leave chocolate treats out for Idea Elves.  Like dogs, they are allergic to chocolate.  Trust me, there’s nothing sadder than waking up to find a heap of poisoned elves on your kitchen floor.