Ideas: The Wheels of Progress

Interview with Jack Foster, author of "How to Get Ideas"
By Vern Burkhardt
No one is criticized for having too many ideas. Such a person is more likely to be known as the genius with all the ideas, but all of us can learn how to get ideas—a lot of ideas. We need to learn to be ever more idea-prone, to idea-condition our minds. But in the final analysis we need to have the moxie to put our ideas into action.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): What is your key message in How to Get Ideas?

Jack Foster: The key message is that all of us are very creative. If we simply allow ourselves to be more creative we will be more creative. Most of the time we hold ourselves back, but if we can convince ourselves that we are a fountain of good ideas we will become a fountain of good ideas. The same is true in all facets of life, certainly in all facets of our personality. We make ourselves. We invent ourselves.

We are creations of our own imaginations and we own whether we are positive or negative in our approach to life. Most of the time the people I worked with were very positive and that positivity manifested itself in positive acts. If you're around negative people that negativity wears you down.

VB: Why do you think some people are almost always negative?

photo of Jack FosterJack Foster: I think it's the way they were brought up. Their parents influenced them. A couple of bad things may have happened to them and it has infected their whole life. I know it can be turned around—it doesn't need to be a permanent condition.

VB: You define an idea as a new combination of old elements. Would you explain the implications of this for people who want to enhance their creative and innovative abilities?

Jack Foster: That is James Webb Young's definition in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas. I remember reading that book and saying to myself, "Wow! That is neat." The reason I thought it was so neat is because its message is: I don't have to do anything new. I don't have to come up with a new idea in isolation. I don't have to be a genius. All I have to do is take a couple of things I already know about and combine them, and all of a sudden something new will occur.

Cooking is a great example. We make new recipes by combining ingredients we already know about. I believe the same thing is true with ideas. My favorite example is: you take a stick and a rag, combine them and you have a mop. I saw this all the time in advertising when we wanted to communicate something. We would take things, put them together a little bit differently, and up would come something new.

The reason I love that definition of an idea is because it's freeing. All of a sudden becoming full of ideas, or becoming "ideaful," is not a daunting thing. It's something that should be easy to do. Most of the things I've read about generating new ideas have some variation on combining old elements. For example, Robert Frost advised, if you remember one thing, remember about how to have ideas—a new idea is a feat of association.

VB: It is very enabling in that virtually anybody, if they so choose, could be creative.

Jack Foster: I absolutely believe it. Not only could we be creative, I think we are. That's the human condition. We spend our lives coming up with ideas, with solving problems. How do I get the kids to do their homework? How do I make the meatloaf taste different? How do I go to work a different way? All these are new ideas and new ways of approaching things. As human beings that's what we do in our lives. We come up with ideas on how to do things.

When I hear people say, "He hasn't had an idea in his life," I think it is naïve and wrong. He's had tons of ideas. You can't get through life without ideas. How did he learn to tie his shoelaces!

VB: People have new ideas but just don't express the new ideas or appear to challenge themselves?

Jack Foster: Yes or don't try. A lot of times people are fearful because a new idea is a challenge. What you're saying with a new idea is what we were doing before isn't as good. That can be a very challenging thing. People can get angry when that occurs and they might not accept it. One can feel uneasy about challenging other people's ideas and established ways of thinking.

One of the characteristics I found in creative people was not only their curiosity, which enabled them to get a lot of new ideas, but also their courage. They would say in a meeting something nobody had said before. "Why don't we take the veal chops and make them with strawberries?" They were undaunted, unafraid that somebody would say, "Are you crazy?"

A lot of times people don't come up with ideas because of fear of being rejected. If you're the boss, if you're the leader, one way to entice courage is to come up with "stupid" ideas yourself in front of your employees. They'll say, "He's not afraid to come up with off the wall ideas, so we can too."

Think Yourself Creative

VB: You say children are deformed by adult society, which over time retards their ability to generate new ideas. Is this deforming inevitable and how can we as parents and educators have less of a deforming effect?

Jack Foster: It's inevitable because it's part of the growing up process. There are rights and wrongs that you have to learn in order to get along in life. But unless you are willing to break some of those rights and wrongs you'll never be creative. Once you know the sky is blue you have to feel you have permission to make it red if you want.

I was lucky. My parents always wanted me to look at different ways of doing things and consequently I always thought in different ways. My father was an atheist and his brother a Jesuit priest. After Mass on Sunday my uncle would come to our house, they would pick a topic, such as socialized medicine, and then flip a coin to see who would take opposing sides of an argument. They would argue back and forth.

What was amazing to me was that these two, first-rate minds could take any subject and argue passionately and intuitively and new ideas would flow. I learned from an early age that there's always another way to look at something. There isn't just the one way that is taught in a textbook.

I would encourage parents to set a similar example and to tell their children there are many perspectives and useful ideas about any question or problem. The thought that there is only one way, only one answer leads to biases and prejudices that inhibit the generation of new ideas.

VB: Were you successful, as a parent, in encouraging this view?

Jack Foster: I think so. I have two boys I'm proud of—they seem to be pleased with themselves as human beings. It might be because they saw what my wife and I do. My wife breaks rules all the times too. I think it's important for parents to say here are the rules, you must follow them but remember if you break them you might end up great. You can't break them because somebody says you should. You've got to break them for the fun of it.

VB: You observe that what you think about yourself is the single most important factor in a person's success. You also say you can alter your life by altering your attitude. How does this relate to getting ideas?

Jack Foster: I think you have to talk to yourself specifically about getting ideas. We all talk to ourselves all the time, we observe things about ourselves, and we all think about ourselves. If you tell yourself every day, "I am a fount of ideas," "I bubble with ideas," "I have so many ideas it's hard to believe," "I'm a genius when it comes to getting ideas," eventually you will live up to that new self-image you've created for yourself.

We are, as I said earlier, creations of our own imagination. We are what we imagine ourselves to be and the more we imagine ourselves to be full of ideas, the more full of ideas we'll become. It's true in things physical—the reason some people can do certain physical things is because they think they can. It's also true in things mental. People go to healers thinking they'll be cured, and they come away cured. If they can do that with their bodies imagine what they can do with their minds?

It's amazing how positive thinking can change you. In my life it changed me. I remember when I first got married it dawned on me that my wife, who I felt was the best thing I had ever met in my life, was knocked out by me. When I realized that I almost couldn't stand it! Talk about raising your ego. My wife—to whom I have been married for 53 years—was bowled over by me!

The Pride of Failure

VB: That's a lovely example. Why we should rejoice in failure?

Jack Foster: My favorite approach regarding failure is Thomas Edison's—I haven't failed, I’ve just found10,000 things that don't work. Isn't that just glorious? That's the reason you should rejoice in failure—you found something that didn't work. Now you can go on to find or invent something that will work.

Over and over again in the advertising agency business that's what you do. When somebody says they have to get more people to come to the bank to take out loans, you come up with five or six ideas but none of them work. So you generate five or six more ideas. The initial five or six ideas eliminated some approaches you don't have to think about when generating the next five or six ideas.

Failing is what we all do when we are trying to get ideas. It stops us making the same mistake we made when we failed.

Another thing about failing is failure means you've gone too far. If you step back a little you can find something that will work. You don't know whether you've gone too far until you've failed. You should always rejoice in failure. You want to push an idea to the stage of failure so you know when you've gone too far.

I used to love it when people came to me with ideas that were so crazy and absurd it was hard to believe they were suggesting them for consideration. I would say, "That's great. Now take one step back and see what you've done." And many times it would work—they would generate very creative new ideas.

VB: What is your proudest failure?

Jack Foster: While working in my third job in the advertising business a gentleman offered me a job at another firm. I replied I didn't want the job because I was having a lot of fun where I was working. He offered me twice what I was earning, and a move out of copy writing into creative work—as a creative director.

I accepted the job due to the money but three months later I quit. I couldn't stand the job and I wasn't having fun. It taught me the valuable lesson that money isn't the most important thing in a working relationship—at least not as far as I'm concerned. I had to enjoy my work; I had to be having fun. I had to want to go into the work in the morning. That failure taught me a great lesson because later I was able to turn down other jobs with equanimity.

VB: Do you think most people understand the lesson of being proud of failing?

cover of How to Get IdeasJack Foster: No, and it was a lesson about generating ideas I had not initially considered. The first edition of How to Get Ideas didn't have a chapter about failure.

I have a friend teaching at an art centre in Los Angeles who thinks the biggest inhibitor for creative people is their fear of failure. After the first edition was published he said, "You failed—you've written a book about creativity and you haven't included the value of failure."

I was embarrassed to tears and corrected that failing with the second edition.

VB: So failure as a benefit is a profound idea?

Jack Foster: I think it is. People are afraid of failure and they shouldn't be. They should rejoice in it. They should love it. In fact, they should seek failure because it means they've gone too far.

Getting Great Ideas

VB: What is the best idea you have ever had? Did you implement it?

Jack Foster: I think I've had a lot of interesting ideas. The one that comes immediately to mind occurred when I worked for the Baldwin Piano Company, which makes musical instruments of all kinds.

At the time they were beginning to produce electrical instruments. An electronic organ they had just started selling was very popular for families because it was easy to play. You just pushed a button and chords and rhythm would come forth. I remember touring Baldwin's factory and finding out that the electronic organ was nothing but a bunch of electronic gadgets—an amplifier and speakers. It was in the form of a spinet upright, but it was really just electronic circuitry.

At the same time we were doing work for a homebuilder in Chicago who was seeking ways to upgrade his home designs, so they would be more attractive to potential buyers. I suggested Baldwin could install an organ keyboard in one of the rooms. The keyboard could be stored out of sight in a drawer. You would simply pull out the keyboard connected to the amplifier and speakers in the room and you'd have an organ.

Baldwin's management got excited about the idea, which they pursued, but the first customer was a developer who went bankrupt—so they stopped research and development of the product. I loved that idea and thought it would work. I don't think anybody offers that even today. I believe there is a market for multi-room organs in private homes that could be satisfied by installing keyboards as I have described.

A friend has an idea that nobody has commercialized. He thinks it's stupid to take dishes out of the dishwasher and put them back in the cupboard. Why not make all the kitchen shelves dishwashers? After using them just put the dishes back in their place in the cupboard, push a button, and they would be washed. One of these days it may happen.

VB: How do you personally fight the temptation to fall into habitual ways of thinking and doing?

Jack Foster: I imagine how somebody else would solve the problem. Many times that person is a child. I think if I were eleven years old how would I solve the problem? Or I think specifically about somebody else and ask myself how he or she would solve it. I say, how would Condoleezza Rice solve it? How would Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears solve it? Often I'll get a totally different solution.

VB: How does this approach assist in generating ideas?

Jack Foster: You have a different perspective and you start to think like they do.

For example, if you imagine how Condoleezza Rice would solve the problem, you take into account global issues instead of just the little thing you're worried about. It changes how you think.

I'm not a visual thinker but can move toward that type of thinking if I imagine myself thinking like someone who is a visual thinker—my wife, for example.

VB: How did you avoid habitual ways of thinking and doing when you were in the advertising agency business?

Jack Foster: I am not sure. Partly it was from being around people who every day would come up with new ways of doing things that I had never thought of. The writers and art directors would initiate the most incredible creative new ideas. That exposure couldn't help but keep me, as the creative director, from falling into the trap of habitual ways of thinking.

VB: Generally speaking, did you find that the business leaders you worked with were creative and able to generate lots of ideas?

Jack Foster: No, not generally speaking. They might have been but it was never apparent. They would identify problems I assumed they couldn't solve, didn't want to solve, or thought we would be better at solving.

On the other hand, I've had a couple of clients who were remarkable in how they would come up with ideas. One was the Marketing Director at Orida—the potato company. He always wanted to identify different ways of using potatoes. Not only that, he had great faith in his ability to generate great new ideas. He wanted to make pasta out of potatoes. And he had a good name for it‐"the Great Impasta."

He wanted to make donuts out of potatoes. They'd be called spudnuts I guess. He wanted to make bread out of potatoes. Even though he was selling french fries he often called to say he had an idea for a new potato product, to ask my opinion, and to ask whether we could develop an advertisement for it.

But most clients—and remember I was working with the marketing directors and sometimes the companies CEOs or presidents—may have been imaginative and good at creating new ideas but I didn't observe it.

VB: Is it possible they were so caught up in day-to-day business pressures and meetings that they didn't have thinking time?

Jack Foster: Certainly I think that's true. But I found the curiosity factor lacking in a lot of people who weren't involved in the advertising side of the business. I found advertising people horizontal—they were interested in a wide variety of things, and they knew a lot about a lot of different things. I found many people in business were vertical. They were interested in their one area of expertise, the area they were in charge of, and they knew a lot more about their area than I ever could. But if you gave them some other area to think about they often had no new ideas.

I once met with the president of the United California Bank and he had an unbelievably beautiful Oriental rug on the floor in his office. At that time I was studying about Oriental rugs. I sat on the floor, turned part of the rug over and looked at the thread count on the back. When I saw the back I commented it looked like an Isfahan. And I asked if he knew whether or not it was.

His reply was, he didn't know and that he thought it was an Oriental rug. He had no idea what I was talking about. I found too often that business people were not Renaissance thinkers.

VB: You are saying business people need to become more like Leonardo Da Vinci and not narrowly focus on their business.

Jack Foster: Absolutely.

VB: Would you talk about another business leader you found especially creative?

Jack Foster: The late Bob Stevenson was the marketing director of the California Milk Advisory Board, and my firm did a lot of his advertising for yogurt, ice cream, and fresh cream. And we introduced the California cheese advertisements.

Bob was constantly generating new product ideas. When you showed him something new he would always say one of two things. The first was, "I like it. Go produce it but make it better in production."

Or he would say, "I don't like it, do something else and don't ask me why I don't like it."

You might think these two responses seem a bit unappreciative but they were actually very freeing in their effect. They freed us to do something really different and better. He was also of the view there was always a better way, always a different way.

Most of the time in the advertising business when you give somebody a proposal or new idea, they want to talk about it—say why they like it or dislike it, and expound on their views. When marketing directors talk, their sidekicks always agree with whatever they say in order to appear as smart as their boss. That doesn't generate new and better ideas.

VB: Fear is a strong inhibitor of creativity and new ideas. Would you talk about that?

Jack Foster: I think in the short run it's not an inhibitor. If you think you're going to get fired if you don't come up with an idea you're going to get a lot of ideas. In the short run sometimes it works, I have to admit.

In the long run fear is bad because it causes damage. Many people who are great idea generators are very sensitive, so you have to avoid making them fearful in the long run. After all, many people who are afraid of being rejected are really afraid their idea is going to cause problems. You have to help them overcome their reticence to generate novel and even wild ideas, and that is not done through a fear factor—fear of rejection, loss of status or reputation, loss of position, or loss of job.

VB: Notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that brainstorming sessions can involve ten to twelve participants plus a facilitator, you recommend using two or three—not more than four. What is it about the dynamic of a smaller group that makes it more innovative and prone to generate ideas compared to a larger group?

Jack Foster: Many authors and researchers about brainstorming talk about those larger groups but it never worked for me. I think we were just too wild and crazy to have it work. When we got five, six, or more people involved in brainstorming some would show off and argue for their ideas.

Something less than productive happened with the larger groups. An advertising agency is a very competitive place and people want to make sure that their ideas are getting across. I found three people in such sessions was a perfect number.

VB: Your experience was that in a larger group some participants grandstand about who has the best idea rather than collaboratively working together?

Jack Foster: My experience. In other agencies it seems that larger groups worked out fine so perhaps I'm the exception. A friend of mine named Joe Phelps in Santa Monica has all staff in his agency involved in brainstorming ideas and he advises they regularly generate all sorts of good ideas. It just never worked for me.

VB: Were there any creative challenges you faced when working in advertising agencies that stand out in your mind as being especially memorable because they resulted in generating new and exciting ideas that were successful?

Jack Foster: There were a lot. My all-time favorite client was the Forest Service for which we did the Smokey Bear media campaigns. We did their advertising for twenty years.

I loved it because the problems never changed. Yet we would come up with solution after solution after solution. We would come up with new ideas that nobody had thought of before. When you do advertising for a public service like protecting our national forests you can get famous people to participate—like Gregory Peck. We could call Orson Wells to be involved and not have to pay him anything. Many times famous people would assist.

Even though the radio stations were required do devote a certain percentage of their advertising time for public service announcements, we were not getting enough free radio time for the Smokey Bear ads because there were 30 to 40 other public service announcements to be accommodated.

One of our buyers in the media department said, "You know, radio is not broadcasting anymore." In reply to my query about what she meant she said, "It's narrow casting—there's country & western radio, nostalgic radio, news radio, talk radio, and lots of other kinds of radio stations targeting specialized markets."

Another employee suggested we ought to do a commercial for each of these markets. We ought to do a different ad for nostalgic radio, for country and western and all the other types of audiences. And we did just that. Instead of doing one or two radio commercials every year we produced about 15 of them.

All of a sudden we were dominating the airwaves, because all of the radio stations were playing our message targeted at their specific audience instead of somebody else's.

VB: A specialized message catering to their audience.

Jack Foster: Yes, we had the Lone Ranger and Tonto talking about forest fires. On one of the music stations, we had Ray Charles and in one his commercials. He said, "…because when you lose a forest, you lose a lot more than meets the eye. I ought to know. I'm Ray Charles."

VB: Was it actually Ray Charles?

Jack Foster: It certainly was. We would call these high profile, famous people and they would almost always do it. I once had 14 different celebrities—Humphrey Bogart was one of them—and all would say the same thing: "Only you can prevent forest fires." And each voice was different. It was a neat commercial.

We were fortunate to have Norman Rockwell paint Smokey Bear. It was great the things we could do when we asked famous people to do this worthwhile public service for free.

VB: Did any celebrities turn you down?

Jack Foster: Johnny Cash is one I distinctly remember.

Think Visually

VB: One of your tips for generating ideas is to think visually rather than verbally. How can one learn this way of thinking?

Jack Foster: I don't know because it doesn't come naturally to me. It comes naturally to Larry Corby who was the illustrator for my two books, but I don't know how to do it yet.

I work at it. I say to myself the same thing I do with when I'm stuck—How would somebody else think visually about this question or problem? Or I say to myself, what visual does this conjure up in my mind, or what problem comes to my mind that is visual?

For example, is this a problem of too many people in the world? If so I need to visualize the essence of this problem and let my mind think about how would I solve it? But as I said I'm not very good at it.

VB: Albert Einstein was great at thinking visually.

Jack Foster: Yes! Imagine imagining yourself riding a beam of light out into space and wondering what the universe looks like from that perspective. It is astounding to me.

VB: Putting time limits on generating ideas would seem to be counterproductive, plus increasing in stress levels for the people involved. But you advise that time is a stimulating limitation. Would you explain?

Jack Foster: I think most of us—because we always think there's a better idea—will keep searching for that idea until somebody tells us to stop.

If you tell somebody they've got to have an idea in ten minutes they'll come up with an idea in ten minutes. If you tell them they have five days it will take them five days. The five-day idea might be better, I grant you, but most of the time if you push people to come up with good ideas in a relatively short period of time they will manage to do so.

Without deadlines I don't think anything would get done in the advertising business, because most of the people I worked with always put off working on problems and generating ideas until they were under the stress of a deadline.

For example, an art director friend almost always waited until the day before he had to deliver a project. Before that I would ask him what he was doing and he would reply, "I'm thinking about the challenge." I guess he was because often he would come up with really good ideas. I think his subconscious was working on it. I'm a great believer in not thinking about thinking.

VB: Putting the pressure on through a deadline results in the generation of many ideas?

Jack Foster: Yes. Sometimes fear of failing to generate an idea by the deadline can be a motivator. But I think the thing to do is always give somebody a deadline no matter what.

Not only that tell them you don't want just one idea, you want lots of ideas! That way they don't have to come up with the best idea, they can produce a bunch of ideas.

VB: And through that process you will get the best idea.

Jack Foster: Exactly. The best idea they have been able to generate under the circumstances.

Break the Rules

VB: You say that breaking rules is a great way to get ideas. Would you explain?

Jack Foster: The rules are almost always what you follow when you're doing anything. If you do it just a little bit differently a different result will occur.

It happens all the time in sports. When I started playing basketball people shot jumpshots underhanded. For a while it was two-handed over your head. Now they shoot them one-handed. There was one player who jumped to shoot jumpshots.

It happens in every area. There are certain ways you should do something and then someone does it differently. As we are talking my wife is cutting up lettuce because, unlike me, she's a great salad eater. She likes the lettuce in her salads to be really dry. For a long time she used to pat it dry with a paper towel—at times she was using up to two rolls of paper towels a day. Then she bought a plastic spinner contraption to spin the water off the lettuce but it still wasn't dry enough to suit her.

To solve the problem she came up with a different and novel idea. She puts the lettuce in a linen bag and uses the spin cycle of the washing machine. That's breaking the rules!

VB: We're not talking about breaking the law, we're talking about breaking the rules of societal behaviour, of the ways we assume things must be done?

Jack Foster: That's right. We're not talking about breaking the law.

VB: You say the brain doesn't need a rest—in fact, mental relaxation other than meditation is likely counterproductive to generating ideas. Does that mean with more people being entertained by watching television, listening to iPods, and socializing through Facebook, Flicker and other sites on the Internet, we can expect less and less creativity, innovation, and idea generation in future years?

Jack Foster: I think so. The less you force yourself, the more you engage in receptive kinds of entertainment, the more you passively sit and just watch, the less creative you will be.

It certainly has been my personal experience. The more I watch television—I love pro football and pro basketball—the less creative I am. The more I read and write poetry the better off I am. Most of us are too lazy, myself included.

VB: A number of retired people I've talked to say they're so busy in retirement they don't know how they had time to work. I wonder if things appear to take longer to accomplish because they defer tasks and spend more time reading the paper or watching TV.

Jack Foster: I have a retired friend who obviously hadn't liked what he'd done for a living. I asked him what he thought about retirement? He replied, "I miss Fridays and I miss the weekends." Obviously nothing was right about work for him and that carried over to nothing being right about retirement.

I haven't worked for 25 years for anybody except myself, and I find it takes me much longer to do things that I normally used to do. I don't know how to overcome this problem except to work at it.

I participate in the Santa Barbara college education system for senior citizens. Every quarter it has over 350 classes! I'm taking courses in poetry and music. I've already taken bookbinding, rattan, and oceanography courses. I try to keep active but still there's nothing like the challenge of going to work every day and knowing you have to produce.

Focus and Persevere

VB: What advice do you have for people who think they have a great idea with potential commercial value?

Jack Foster: Do something about it every day no matter what. It's the same advice I give myself for ideas I have. Do something every day even if it's to go over what you did yesterday, but do something about it every single day.

VB: Do you believe in keeping notes of your ideas and thoughts?

Jack Foster: Yes and I've become organized. I keep notes because for the last four or five years I've gone deeply into writing poetry—I love to play with words. That's all poetry is, playing with words. I keep a pad by my desk and by my bed at night. I carry a pad with me at all times so I can jot things down.

VB: Can we look forward to your next book, perhaps called "Poetryship"?

Jack Foster: I'm working at it.

VB: It took you three years to write How to Get Ideas. Did you use many of the approaches you recommend in the book to write it?

Jack Foster: I stayed focused. I tried to get as much information from other disciplines as I could. When I wrote the book it was before computers and you couldn't go to Google to do research. Back then I went to the research library at the University of California, Los Angeles campus, every day for months and read a wide range of books to find ideas for my idea book.

Persistence is the key. Besides this book I've written three novels, maybe a hundred poems and about 30 short stories, articles, and essays. Until I got into poetry I sent manuscripts and submissions to at least one publisher every single day. You have to be persistent. You have to really work at it.

Books and Writing

VB: Of the numerous books and articles you read while researching and writing the book, which ones had the most profound influence?

Jack Foster: Certainly James Webb Young's A Technique for Producing Ideas. The Grace of Great Things by Robert Grudin really affected me. The Act of Creation by Authur Koestler is a wonderful book and I most strongly recommend it. He was an incredible man.

VB: Fifty-five readers reviewed your book on and it was given a five-star rating. Thirty-seven of 38 reviewers on have similarly given it a five-star rating as have all 12 on It's been translated into 15 languages.

What is it about the book that has resulted in such high reviews? What reasons do readers you've talked to give for liking the book?

Jack Foster: I was terrified readers might rate the book as terrible. So I was impressed and appreciative of the response it received.

I've appreciated feedback through e-mail or letters as they have gone to the trouble of contacting me through the publisher. Four or five of those over the last ten years have blown me away because they were from young people.

VB: What have they said?

Jack Foster: It's almost always students telling me the book changed their lives. It puts you on a high. Some have been kind enough to write that the book is easy to read.

Given the way it's written it isn't a tough read. I'm an incredibly slow writer and I try to write to one person. Often after I've written something I read it aloud to that one person. If it sounds naïve, trite, or stilted I change it. It's a challenge for me.

Writing for me is not easy. In our old house we had a mailbox where mail could be shoved through a slot in the wall. Our mailman would shove in magazines, almost invariably ripping off the cover because the space was so tight.

I sat down at the typewriter one morning to write a note asking our mailman to leave the magazines outside on the porch. I spent about two hours trying to write that note and it never came out right. It sounded like I was mad at him even though I wasn't. So I got a chair and sat on the porch and waited to tell him in person.

VB: The book is easy to understand. You said you write to one person. Is that a person in your mind?

Jack Foster: Yes, I picked up that technique when I was in advertising. My first boss, Bud Boyd, used to say, "Figure out who you're writing to and then describe her."

It almost always was a woman because we were into food products. Describe and talk about her. Does she like romance novels or does she like the classics? Does she go to the opera or the Grand Ol' Opry? Does she watch television? Describe her in that level of detail and then find a picture of someone who looks like that person in a magazine. Pin her picture on your wall and then write ad copy to her.

VB: This helps you to really visualize it.

Jack Foster: Yes, it's similar to the approach the late Walter Cronkite used as a newscaster. I read that about 15 seconds before the red light would go on to indicate he was on the air he would think about his maiden aunt in Iowa sitting in a rocking chair watching the evening news. Then the countdown 3-2-1 would occur and the producer would say, "You're on, Walter." He would lift his head and tell his maiden aunt the news.

We all had the feeling he was talking to us. I know it's the way to communicate when you're talking to big crowds. I'm convinced it's the way to communicate when you're writing an essay or a book. Pick out one person and read it aloud to that person you have in your mind. If it isn't clear and easily understood then change it. Get it simpler and simpler and simpler.

Foster's Super Truth

VB: Are you naturally creative, and how did you maintain and develop your creative abilities over the years?

Jack Foster: I think everybody is. I worked around people who were creative and it helped. As I said earlier, in my upbringing I learned there was always another way. There's always another way to do something—that's one of the bases of creativity.

Furthermore my father had a great sense of humor. Humor and creativity are different sides of the same coin. People who are creative are almost always funny. They have a great sense of humour because the basis of creativity and humor are the same. You're expecting one thing and something else happens.

Nancy Reagan fell down and broke her hair. You don't expect that. It's the combination.

VB: Do you wish you had been able to read How to Get Ideas when you first started your career?

Jack Foster: Yes, because I learned a lot from writing it. I learned a lot when I was teaching classes about advertising. The book was a result of what the students taught me and what I observed other people doing to generate ideas. It may sound conceited but it would have helped me.

VB: After 35 years working in advertising agency creative departments, you retired from being a creative director of a large ad agency. You also taught at the Universities of California and Southern California. Do you still follow your "super truth," which is "The more you do, the more you do; the less you do, the less you do"?

Jack Foster: I know it's true. Everybody I've ever told that to replies it's right. It's sometimes hard to follow this super truth.

VB: Another way it's been put is: if you want something done, find a busy person.

Jack Foster: That is exactly right.

VB: There are a large number of baby boomers who may be considering retirement over the next few years, assuming their retirement funds have not been decimated by the current financial difficulties. What are the two or three pieces of advice you would give them?

Jack Foster: My advice is don't retire if you love your job, unless you think you can have more fun doing something else. If you hate or don't enjoy your job retire provided you can afford it.

I would say if you're thinking of retiring, find something that you can do in retirement to keep you active. I retired so I could do more on my own but I didn't realize how important outside pressure, such as a job, is for motivating you to get things done.

I thought I could have more fun not working for somebody else and indeed I am having a lot of fun. But certainly you need to find something to make you feel productive.

VB: Having a purpose continues to be important?

Jack Foster: That's right. Even after you retire. Perhaps it's even more important than when you are working—you need to keep active physically and mentally.

VB: Could politicians benefit from reading How to Get Ideas especially in today's difficult economic circumstances?

Jack Foster: It might reinforce for them that there are a lot of different ways to do things, and they should not simply follow the same old methods.

I think the USA has a president-elect who will deliberately find people with different viewpoints to advise him instead of seeking only those with the same viewpoint as his. It's quite evident he's following that approach.

I used to love talking with people who would disagree with me. Arguments are great. I think that tack would help government leaders, and I believe we're on our way to having that type of openness.

Learning how to get ideas is a necessary step to success. Many people have great ideas but don't do anything about them and so the ideas fade away.

Jack Foster recalls George Ade who was a prolific writer in the early 1900s. An interviewer asked Ade's mother about her son's irregular style, less than perfect structure and shallow characterizations. His mother's reply was instructive: "Oh, I know that many people can write better than George does…but George does."

Jack Foster worked for advertising agencies for 35 years, initially as a copywriter. He was the executive creative director for 15 years at Foote, Cone & Belding in Los Angeles, California. After retiring 25 years ago, Foster taught advanced advertising at the University of Southern California and an extension class on creative advertising at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He has written How to Get Ideas, Ideaship, three novels, about 100 poems and about 30 short stories, articles, and essays. And he continues to write poetry.

Jack Foster and Nancy, his wife of 52 years, live in a home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara, California. He does not have an author's website!

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