Using conflict to find creative ideas

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Creativity is nourished by conflict. — Scott Belsky

When you're struggling for new ideas, do you ever think "some conflict would be handy right about now"? I know I never do.

I hate conflict. I get the shakes just responding to rude emails. So I'm surprised that conflict can be beneficial when it comes to bolstering creativity.

There are two main ways I've found that I can use conflict to inform my creative process. One is to lean into conflict within my own life, which tends to bring out the best artistic work I can make. The second is to use disagreements as fodder for new material.

I'll look at both in this post, and give you a checklist for getting started with this approach to coming up with new ideas.

Leaning into conflict

Scott Belsky points out in a piece for 99u that some of the best art we admire was inspired by personal conflict. From Vincent van Gogh's struggle with depression to Alanis Morisette's break-up that inspired her album Jagged Little Pill, personal conflict pushes artists to create.

While creativity is mostly the combination of genuine interest and initiative, the emotion in the art that engages others (the listeners, viewers, customers) comes from somewhere deeper and darker. — Scott Belsky

Scott touches on something important here. Although we need to write great content and make sure our headlines are spot-on, it's the emotion that really makes our blog posts hit home. And although it's uncomfortable, conflict is the best way to tap into emotion. As Scott says, "Your struggle is fuel for whatever it is you must make."

Another example I came across recently was this heartbreaking post by Nathan T. Baker. Nathan's story explains how a devastating event in his personal life led to the most engaging writing he'd ever shared.

I wouldn't wish that pain on anyone, but it's inspiring to see how honest, vulnerable writing can help us connect with others. And that kind of writing comes from direct experience with some kind of conflict.

The best thing about leaning into conflict is that it's so uncomfortable most people won't do it. Which means if you make the effort, you'll have an easy time standing out from the crowd.

Drawing inspiration from an unlikely source

Have you ever watched TV, or listened to a podcast, and felt your blood boil because the people you were listening to just had it all so wrong?

Anger and frustration don't seem like the perfect state for creative work, but they can actually fuel your work process.

I stumbled across this approach when I was listening to a podcast that I often disagreed with (I agreed with it a lot too, which is why I kept listening). Normally I'd listen while exercising, so the points that frustrated me would be long gone from my mind by the time I finished my workout.

After a while I realised my disagreement with the hosts was inspiring me to form my own arguments clearly. While the host waffled on, I'd tune out and imagine how I'd argue my point of view. These disagreements I felt so strongly about were helping me to realise I had strongly-held opinions and experience I could use.

I hadn't thought to write about these topics until I heard someone else talking about them in a way I disagreed with.

I started writing notes about my thoughts after I finished exercising, and ended up writing several blog posts purely started by disagreeing with those hosts. This made me realise that I could draw on what the hosts said for new ideas, even when I often disagreed with what they said. In fact, for me it works better than drawing on points I do agree with.

It's a lot harder to find something to add to the conversation when you're just agreeing with what someone else has already said.

Although I should be clear that I never had an actual argument with the hosts. I didn't even need to mention to anyone that I disagreed with them. I simply took the spark that emerged from my initial frustration at what they said and created something new from it.

What to do next

When you really give a damn, you’re willing to fight for it. Conflict accompanies passion. — Scott Belsky

1. Start taking notes of ideas you disagree with or conflicts you're a part of. Even conflicting feelings within you can inspire new ideas.

Here are some examples of conflict that's arisen in my life recently, to get you thinking:

2. Get emotional. Draw on those conflicts for content ideas. Don't be afraid of expressing how you feel. Remember, some of the best work comes about that way.

3. Add some objectivity. Let your first draft sit for a while before coming back to it. Add some research and rational thinking to ensure your readers always have a practical takeaway.

Nathan T. Baker's post that I mentioned earlier is a great example that uses all three of these elements. He writes about a conflict taking place in his life, uses emotion to share how the conflict is affecting him, but ultimately leaves the reader with a useful takeaway: that emotional writing resonates better with readers.


Are you struggling to come up with new topic ideas? I'd love to know whether this post was useful to you and whether I should write more (or a different topic you'd rather read about). Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.