Little Idea Elves
In the story of the Elves and the Shoemaker, a tired old shoemaker lays out pieces of shoe leather on his workbench before he goes to sleep.
In the middle of the night, elves appear out of nowhere (as elves do!) to help the old man, using the shoe leather to create fine-quality shoes.
I like this story because it reminds me of a kind of “magical help” that I get when I work on creative problems.
During the day, I'll be working on a design or coding problem and there’s usually a point where I get stuck. If I keep trying to brute force the problem, I just end up going around in circles and wasting time.
When I realize that I'm not getting anywhere, I just set the problem aside for the rest of the day. I've done all I can do. I write out all of the “pieces” of the problem in a text file, and close my laptop for the day.
The next morning, I'll get my coffee and sit down in front of the laptop to revisit the problem. Then, like magic, a solution will often appear.
Sometimes the solution is a totally new idea. Sometimes it’s just a new detail that I overlooked. And sometimes it’s really nothing more than gaining enough extra confidence to go forward with a solution that I had already considered but had talked myself out of.
You could say it’s divine inspiration. But really, if there’s a higher power, I doubt that it cares about the kind of problems that I work on, like deciding what kind of spell system I should use for the RPG I'm making.
More likely, it comes from my subconscious mind working away at the problem as a “background task”.
Our brains have 100 billion neurons to work with, and the science is starting to support the idea that “sleeping on it” really helps with problem solving.
Either way, I’m fine with not knowing exactly how it works. I’m just happy knowing I can go to sleep and let my Little Idea Elves solve things for me.
And — more importantly — I don’t have to pay them for it!
Will Winter's Weekly Whatever