Discover more from Vim
How to have ideas
a framework for effective ideation
On occasion I’ve been blessed to let good ideas flow through me. While there’s probably an element of luck in this, I also believe this is a deeply learnable skill, and one that many people neglect.
1. Have lots of ideas
The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
–Linus Pauling, Nobel Prize (2x)
Ideation is a skill, and like any skill you don’t improve unless you practice.
So practice having ideas about everything, all the time.
If you do this often enough you will be able to turn this into a habitual “ideation program” that runs as a continuous background mental process.
2. Believe an ideal solution exists
They can conquer who believe they can.
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.
One of the most integral pieces of your ideation program is simply the belief that something better exists.
Instill in yourself a deep and instinctive knowledge that there is a more ideal form of everything you encounter, that you simply have to find. Continually attempt to derive this through both analogy and first principles.
3. Accrete interesting knowledge
If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.
My approach to problem-solving is to carry around a dozen interesting problems, and a dozen interesting solutions to unrelated problems, and eventually, I’ll be able to make connections. […]. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state.
Once you have your ideation program set up, the next step is to give it the right fuel.
Talk to interesting people, read interesting books, collect interesting problems. Do weird things, follow strange thinkers, explore your opposites. Search for patterns, connections, and isomorphisms across these.
Treat your information diet as a craft to be honed.
4. Write down everything
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
You may be surprised by how many ideas you have once you commit to writing each and every one down. Most will be bad. Some may be ok. Others may be a piece of a good idea, or a half-turn away from a great one.
If you don’t commit to writing them down though you can’t learn from them or build off them. On top of that, writing down each idea is a signal to yourself that you are deeply committed to having better ideas, and will help make that so.
5. Develop your idea taste
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
Set up a process to review your ideas often. Learn to calibrate your idea quality. Especially in the beginning most ideas will be terrible, banal, unoriginal. If you stick with it though then you may gradually ideate your way in to uncharted realms of human thought.
The mark of a good idea is that you’re still obsessed with it one month, two months, three months… after the aha moment, and that it survives the sunlight of conversations with intelligent friends or writing about it.
As you practice having ideas, you may also learn that you can develop intuition for where good ideas lie. Rich seams of proto-ideas awaiting harvest. Follow your curiosity and excitement. Read the histories of the great ideas. Learn to recognize the patterns of things that precede them.
The goal is to teach your ideation model to have more good ideas and less bad ones through feedback and reinforcement.
6. Make space for ideation
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
Once you have your ideation program running smoothly and calibrated well, the last step is to allow it abundant mental space and overhead to operate in.
A cluttered or distracted mind is the worst thing you can have for good ideas—become a minimalist, give up your attachments, write down every thought that doesn’t need to be held in working memory then forget it immediately.
Allow yourself to become bored. Go on long walks. Take long, hot showers. Let your mind drift before bed (with a pen nearby).
The best ideas arise when your mind is full of interesting thoughts and calm enough to forge them into something new.