December 02, 2022
There is a prevailing myth in creative circles that the first thought is the best thought — a concept that appears to prize spontaneity over rumination and shorter processes over longer ones. But when people try this approach for themselves, it doesn’t necessarily lead to the best work. So why has this idea perpetuated? Where did it come from? And why do we cling to these myths about creativity?
The origins of 'first thought, best thought'
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg is usually credited with coining the phrase “first thought, best thought” in regard to his creative process. In fact, it likely came from one of his Buddhist meditation teachers, Chögyam Trungpa. Further back in time, we find the 18th century poet-philosopher-mystic William Blake saying, “First thought is best in Art, second in other matters.”
Regardless of who said it first, the idea has clearly been part of our artistic consciousness for a long time. But what does it really mean?
In my view, “first thought, best thought” has been wildly misunderstood to mean something akin to “first draft, best draft.” The Beat writers in particular seem to embody this interpretation. How could something as visceral as Ginsberg’s “Howl” be a product of intentional revision? Or look at Jack Kerouac scribbling “On the Road” in a feverish three weeks on one long scroll of paper. Doesn’t the raw, fresh aesthetic of his writing stem directly from the fact that it hasn’t been tainted by second-guessing?
But the reality of the Beat generation’s collective genius was quite different. Dig a little deeper and you find out that Ginsberg worked and re-worked various versions of “Howl” before he got it into the published form we know today.
And Jack Kerouac? He reportedly “rehearsed” his process for several years beforehand.
So I think it’s time to acknowledge that while we keep using the phrase “first thought, best thought,” maybe it doesn’t mean what we think it means.
What’s the danger of prioritizing your first thought?
If we interpret “first thought” as meaning “first attempt,” “first flash of insight,” or even “first draft,” this sets us up for a lot of problems. For one thing, it puts a lot of pressure on that initial idea. What if your first thought is awful?
In their book Art & Fear, artist-writers David Bayles and Ted Orland share a story of a ceramics class split into two groups. The teacher tells the first group they only have to make one pot but they’ll get graded on its quality; the second group will get graded on the quantity.
The result? While the “quality” group spent time agonizing over how to make a perfect pot right from the jump, the “quantity” group were chucking clay around, learning from their mistakes — and producing better pots in the end as a result.
This story illustrates how “first thought, best thought” can have devastating consequences. For one thing, it doesn’t account for how many bad pots you need to make in order to get to a beautiful pot. It denigrates the idea of revision, implying that any adjusting or adding you do after the initial brainstorm will just make the end product worse as you stray from your initial first attempt.
The myth of spontaneity has had a formative impact on how people and brands approach social content, too. Social media is a unique beast in that it was pretty much designed with the worst interpretation of “first thought, best thought” in mind. Social media platforms encourage off-the-cuff posting; the hotter the take, the better.
The problem with any hot take is that, given time to cool off, most people would respond differently to an issue or situation. More information can lead to better choices and more educated viewpoints. In a highly reactive and emotional environment (which social media often is), the first thought is often not the best thought at all and needs to be reconsidered a few times before sharing.
Is there another way?
When I started out as a copywriter, I didn’t really understand how to create concepts. I was a very good writer, but creative conception was a whole other kind of skill. My first thought was very rarely my best.
But it’s something I learned how to get better at by doing it. I had to practice; it didn’t just happen. I had to get comfortable with throwing out a lot of bad pots. That’s a part of the creative process that I can promise you will never change.
So with that in mind, I want to propose a new way of looking at the phrase “first thought, best thought.” Instead of seeing the second half of the phrase as being merely an added descriptor of the first, let’s see the comma as the necessary dividing line — the space in which we take a breath and get to work — between where we begin our journey and where we need to end up.
An effective approach to creativity takes time, and brainstorming may just be the beginning. Yes, a spontaneous brainstorm may reveal what you want to say, but then you’ll need to work and polish and revise to figure out the best way to say it.
Just don’t be afraid to make and break some pots along the way.