If you’ve ever belted out the lyrics to the Elton John song, Rocket Man while driving down the highway, you have Bernie Taupin to thank. Bernie is the longtime lyricist who wrote the words to most of Elton John’s songs.
In 1971, Bernie was driving to his parent’s house in Lincolnshire, England. He’d been living in the states and it’d been a long time since he’d visited home. The sun already had set and the winding backroads toward the village were pitch black.
His mind wandered as he drove. He’d just read a science fiction story by Ray Bradbury about an astronaut who misses his wife and son while traveling through space. The stars were above him and his high-beams cut through the dark void of night. He thought about the drudgery of being a home-sick astronaut. With cold air and on his neck, Bernie suddenly had an idea. Then came the words:
“She packed my bags last night pre-flight / Zero hour 9 AM / And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.”
The words left Bernie’s lips and he felt something stir inside him. He reached for his bag in the backseat — no paper. He checked the glove box — no pen. There weren’t any service stations for miles. Cell phones didn’t exist. All he had were the stars and his high-beams. He was still hours away from his parent’s house.
What do you do when an idea reaches down from the night sky and whispers in your ear?
Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, believes that ideas are energetic life-forms, driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.
“When an idea thinks it has found somebody — say, you — who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.”
It might be a stretch to believe ideas are metaphysical organisms, jumping from person to person like a speed dating round. Yet, we’ve all felt the dissipation of ideas when we don’t follow them up with action. It’s one thing to generate creative ideas. It’s another to actually answer the call and transport those ideas into the material world.
The generation of ideas can be explained away — it’s your subconscious, it’s something you read, it’s something you ate. But whether it’s science or science fiction, one thing is for sure: When inspiration hits you with an idea, take action.
Bernie sped down the highway, gripping the steering wheel. “She packed my bags last night, pre-flight.” He recited the words, committing them to memory. He shouted them out the window. He channeled all his focus, desperate to not lose his train of thought.
When he reached his parent’s house they were standing at the front door to greet him. They were excited to see their son after so long. Bernie threw his car in park and, without saying hello, rushed past them into the house. He grabbed a pen and paper.
And just like that, as Gilbert puts it, his idea was “made manifest.”
Bernie couldn’t have known those same words would end up at the top of the pop charts a year later, or that Rocket Man would become one of the most beloved Elton John songs of all time. Looking at the lyrics without any context of melody, one would hardly think they would go on to mean so much to so many — that thousands of people would be repeating the same words in their own car, on other dark highways, for the next 50 years.
Still, Bernie knew the feeling when it came to him. He recognized the strange alchemy of intuition, excitement, and fear that the words might vanish. Many artists and writers say it’s difficult to explain that feeling when it comes. But Bernie knew he didn’t need to explain it. He just needed to write it down.
Bernie was connected enough to his own creativity and intuition to hear the call. And then — after recognizing the moment — he did the one thing that separates the amateurs from the pros: He took action.
Like other great artists and leaders that came before him, Bernie Taupin understood that our ability to channel ideas — whether through science or science fiction — was only as valuable as our ability to act.
Inspiration isn’t something to bookmark for later. Our ideas need to be written down. They need to be shouted out. If not, they will slip away. They’ll evaporate on the dark highway, laying in wait for the next astronaut.
One of the most incredible parts of being human is our ability to take ideas from seemingly supernatural realms of thought and deliver them into real-world existence. But our ideas won’t wait around forever. And the longer we let them sit inside our heads, the more likely it is that our logical brains will suffocate them and make them ordinary.
Henry David Thoreau famously said, “Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.”
If you want other people to find warmth around your flame, capture your fire while it’s still hot.