DRMacIver's Notebook

You can't actually run out of ideas

You can't actually run out of ideas

You can't actually run out of ideas, because ideas are generated not found. The way to get more ideas is just to work at it, and if you're struggling it's probably because you're approaching the problem wrong.

Anyway, let me tell you about two books.

The first book is de Bono's "Lateral Thinking". This book is annoyingly good. By which I mean this book is good, and that's annoying.

The second is Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From", which is about innovation in the world but also works just as well at a more personal scale.

De Bono's argument is that there are essentially two types of thinking: Lateral and vertical. I tend to think of the split as more lateral and critical: generating ideas and ensuring that your ideas are good as separated tasks.

Steven Johnson's argument is that ideas are an evolutionary process. Ideas build on other ideas, through combination, mutation, variation. Exaptation happens and ideas are borrowed from other contexts. Selection pressure happens when ideas hit the real world and you find out if they actually work. At any given point, you have the ever growing adjacent possible - the set of ideas it's currently possible to have, based on the set of ideas that have already been had and developed.

This is how it works on the inside as well: You have your own personal version of the adjacent possible, which is ever expanding, and which contains all the potential ideas you could have. Having ideas is about exploring that.

If you are failing to explore the adjacent possibly to your satisfaction, there's probably a very simple reason for that: You're trying to not have bad ideas, when you should be trying to have good ideas.

Bad ideas are great. Having bad ideas is super fun. You can toy with them, nerd out about them, and you can learn from them. You need to be careful about implementing them, especially at scale, but having them is a harmless and necessary part of the idea generation process.

This is especially true because they provide grounding for your adjacent possible. Bad ideas can generate good ideas, because they act as existence proofs that show you what a solution might look like, and you can riff off that to generate good ideas.

You will never get the benefit of this if you are integrating critical thinking too early in the process, because you are censoring a critical part of the process. Reproduction and selection are separate parts of the evolution of ideas, and if you try to integrate them too tightly your idea generation process will feel unneccessarily difficult.

I recommend both of the books I mentioned, but especially de Bono's lateral thinking book. However, I can tell you the most useful idea in the book in one sentence: When you want to generate ideas, give yourself a prompt (ways to do X, Y, Z), decide how many you want (fifty is a good number, but start with ten if you're unsure), and write down that many ideas. They can be ridiculous, they can certainly be bad, they don't have to be things you'd want to do or even could do, they just have to be ideas attached to the prompt.

After you've done that, then is the time to mine through the ideas to see if there's anything interesting there, but until you've actually generated the ideas there's no point being too critical.