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Generating better ideas
How can we come up with better ideas?
Let’s do a simple exercise: Think of the three best movies you’ve watched.
I’ll wait for a minute…
Done? Let’s see what happened:
The search query “come up with three favorite movies” was sent to your brain.
Your brain worked hard searching through your memory.
A handful of names popped up in your consciousness.
You carefully compared against each other while other names kept bubbling up, iterating your choice.
You finalized your answer.
We follow a similar process to generate great ideas. Let’s look at these steps.
I: A problem to solve
When I asked you the question, your brain immediately started working on it. To come up with great ideas, you have to be curious enough.
I’ve talked with many friends who changed their lives for the better, and it all started with questions they couldn’t get off their heads. For me it’s about realizing that I’m not happy even when I earn more money. So I read and then write about it.
Problems don’t have to be obstacles. It can be anything you want to know more about. We’re all curious about something if we allow ourselves to be.
II: Quantity of inputs
Of all the movies in the world, the top three can only be selected from what you’ve watched. The quality of your experience predetermines the quality of your answer.
Great ideas have to come from somewhere. Books we read, articles we skimmed and videos we watched are the building blocks. How good are they? A masterpiece cannot be made from rotten ingredients.
Consume what interests you innately, not what others or algorithms want you to.
Reflect on whether what you consume serves your purpose. Is reading a book or listening to a podcast better? I prefer books to upgrade my mindset, and use articles, tweets, podcasts or videos to learn tactics. 1
III: A welcoming environment
If I asked you the movie question while you’re running for a late appointment, hardly anything will bubble up in your mind.
For great ideas to emerge, we need a welcoming environment. Both intense focus and casual wondering matter.
I once asked Derek Sivers how he developed his ideas. He replied just keeping my fingers on the keys is his favorite solution.
Every morning I try to spend some time writing. You can design your routine, but here is mine.2
Allowing time to wander is not a waste of time. This is when the brain creates connections for understanding, so better do it after the hard work.
Morgan Housel said in a podcast, “I walk a lot. I go for at least two, sometimes three, walks during the day. That’s kind of my digestion time.”
Be aware of what you’re thinking about while you’re walking or taking a shower. Our minds tend to prioritize urgent problems rather than important ones.
During work days I often find myself ruminating about conversations with coworkers. But those internal conversations are useless because they’re either in the past or haven’t happened yet. Be mindful about what thoughts arise and constantly remind the brain what are the better problems to think about.
I used to think my ideas are not good enough, so I didn’t bother to write about them. But we’re bad judges of our own ideas.
The world tells us whether an idea is good or not. We want feedback to improve it. And sometimes we may be surprised that what seems obvious to us is amazing to others.
One attitude I find helpful is “strong opinions, loosely held.” Don’t be afraid to share what you believe at the moment, but always be willing to change your mind when new information comes to light.
This is kind of my framework for creative work and life in general. As you can tell it’s a spiral process rather than linear:
Improve the quality of input
Allow time to focus and wander
Reflect and iterate
💡 The Top Idea in Your Mind by Paul Graham
You can't directly control where your thoughts drift. If you're controlling them, they're not drifting. But you can control them indirectly, by controlling what situations you let yourself get into. That has been the lesson for me: be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about.
🤩 Obvious to you. Amazing to others. by Derek Sivers
Hit songwriters often admit that their most successful hit song was one they thought was just stupid, even not worth recording.
We’re clearly bad judges of our own creations. We should just put them out there and let the world decide.
Are you holding back something that seems too obvious to share?
🥒 The Art of Fermenting Great Ideas by Nat Eliason
You’ll find a lot of similar ideas in Nat’s article, better written than mine. One trick I learned is to tag certain notes in Apple Notes with
#focus and create a smart folder to show them on the home screen. So I get reminded each time I pick it up.
🕹️ Making the Internet Work for You: YouTube by Andrew Conner
To increase the quality of the content from the Internet, try to “double opt-in”. If you find something interesting, save it and decide later if it’s truly worth your time. Most things won’t pass the test. Andrew shared a lot of useful tips in the post.
Alright, I try to make it one of the best emails you get each week, and I hope you’re enjoying it.
What are the top problems in your mind? Reply to this email or DM me on Twitter.
Have a great week,
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James Clear tweeted “Books for mindset. Quiet time to think for strategy. Conversations with successful peers for tactics.”