7 Ways To Have Good Ideas

MikeachimWriting13 Comments

This is a post about awakening the Monster within you.


Latin: inspirare — “to breathe into”

If someone tells you they’re being “inspiring,” raise an eyebrow.

Maybe they are being inspiring . . . but it’s not their call, it’s yours (or whoever the target audience is). Inspiration is personal and internal. It’s where the brain short-circuits, except not in the real-world way where something goes PWACK and the house pongs of burst plastic. It happens in the B-movie science fictional way — spiking to 500% efficiency, crawling with lightning and bending local laws of physics. Inspiration takes a bunch of inert organic compounds and Frankensteins them into twitching life.

Nobody should take the credit (or blame) for that except you. It’s your Monster.

If we could make lightning strike us at will, we’d all be rich. (Or smoking holes in the ground, if we weren’t good at recognizing metaphors.) Tragically, our Monster is fickle and shy. When we whistle for it, it either flips us the middle finger or runs like the clappers. Good ideas occur at random, or when you least expect them. You can’t force yourself to have one. You just can’t.

At least I can’t. I’ve tried. I’ve faced many blank Word documents, many unsympathetic expanses of virgin foolscap, and waited for Genius to call. Unfortunately it’s always busy elsewhere, and I usually have to settle for its distant relation “Erratically Crap.” Or, I just sit there until I get some kind of cramp. It’s only when I get away from that blank page, or from my desk entirely, that I’m eureka’d back into the game with a brilliant, shiny thought, like “It’s a demonic sandwich!” or “He ends up being the wrong Napoleon!”

As time has gone on, I’ve spotted patterns. There are things I can do and places I can go that turn the key in my creative lock and let me get at the good stuff.

Here are 7 things I do to improve my chances of having a great idea.

Fevered Mutterings image: Doctor Science, by JD Hancock - Flickr

1. Hang Around People Who Have Too Many Ideas

Here’s a working definition of the Internet: a place where people overshare. For some folk, this is why the internet hasn’t yet fulfilled its potential. We’re actively fighting to receive less information so we can work and play more effectively. No more information needed! No, what the Web needs is ideas — say, an idea about how to arrange all that information so it’s less useless (Google “search engine” – then look at what you just did, and feel an idiot. You’re welcome).

While way too many people are hosing our eyeballs with raw data, some cannier souls are concerned with ideas. They can’t help it — they’re so brimming with exciting leaps of intuition and they’re so snowed under with working through what they already have (because they’ve always been this way) that they just . . . get rid of them. They blog them out to their followers. They bundle them into books and make some money off them.

But they don’t use them.

These people are worth hanging out with. Not so you can steal their unwanted ideas (Google “successful people have really good legal teams”). What you’re doing is colliding your lumps of half-inspiration with theirs, in the hope that creative fission will ensue. Go read Seth Godin. Go read Steven Berlin Johnson. Listen to Radiolab and read Krulwich Wonders. Go anywhere people are playing with ideas for the hell of it, and knock heads with them (not literally — again, the whole legal thing) to see what happens.

Find people who brim with cool ideas they can’t keep to themselves. Find them offline as well as online. If you can, feed them coffee until they go ballistic, and then pull out a notebook.

Just remember, if they help wake your Monster and contribute to a great idea, it’s polite to give them credit for it.

LEGO Machines

2. Read Strangely

I can’t keep up with everything you enjoy on the Internet. God knows I’ve tried. (I’m still ploughing through the archives of Nieman Storyboard, and they keep posting stuff.) If you’re stretching your attention too thinly, you have to narrow your connections — also a key to effective blogging, as Glenn Allsopp outlines in his terrific 10,000+ Subscribers. But what happens when you can’t narrow them down further and you’re still overwhelmed? If I’m not at that point, I’m close – and if I’m not careful, I’ll spend all my time on one or two sources of information, playing a game of catch-up I can never win.

Oh, and I’m trying to read all of National Geographic, right from the beginning. The bad news is, I’m reading them at the speed of roughly 2 years per year.

The good news is, math isn’t my strong point.

Narrowing your focus is great for getting things done. It’s also a risk if you need to surprise your brain — and if you want to come up with good ideas, you have to challenge your noggin as much as you entertain it.

Read things you don’t agree with, written by people you have a problem with. Read things you suspect (but don’t know) you have zero interest in. Find the time to read weirdly, as if you’re not entirely the one in control here. If you read too much modern genre fiction, start reading newspapers. If your day is dominated by the Guardian, throw yourself into The Onion instead. Read quickly, skimming for ideas that are worth deeper scrutiny.

Remember – they could be anywhere.

Fevered Mutterings image: Key in lock, by Tawheed Manzoor - Flickr

3. Splice Randomly

Most of my “good ideas” aren’t. They’re either rubbish, impractical or incomplete. I can’t do anything about my crappiest thoughts, other than writhe in self-loathing and then try to move on. Regarding thinking impractically, I have friends and colleagues to remind me how the world actually works. And the half-ideas? I’ve learned to incubate them.

As Stephen Johnson so elegantly puts it here, a great idea is usually a collision of hunches. For critical mass to occur, a good hunch needs to be joined to something else, and finding that “something else” usually takes time.

Want to have a great idea? Buy a big, solid notebook that looks capable of surviving the zombie apocalypse. Write all your hunches, inklings and half-assed ideas in there, in the form of a single word written small on a double-page in the middle, and as a longer, fuller entry somewhere else. And the next time you want a good idea? Open up the central double-page and join some words together, however barmy the results. When your eyebrows start smoking, you’ve hit the jackpot.

Nb: I also do this in my browser – I have a bookmarks folder labelled “Tickler” (from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, before you jump to lewd conclusions,) and I bookmark anything that feels like it’s half of something exciting.

Fevered Mutterings image: Akrotiri Peninsula, Cyprus - Mike Sowden

4. Get Sweaty

Your brain is part of your body. This means your thoughts are a consequence of how well your body is working. It’s that simple.

I used to be overweight. It’s no coincidence that this happened at a time when my self-confidence was lowest, my thinking was sludgy and even my best ideas were no-brainers. It was only when I lost that weight, put on muscle and learned the joy of walking until my legs were rubbery that I started coming up with useful ideas.

Furthermore, those ideas usually leapt into my mind while I was exercising.

In Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, Jonathan Fields notes:

A substantial body of research now connects exercise to improvement in mood. Another set of studies connects improved mood to creativity and productivity. Given the number of moody, disgruntled, yet productive, successful, and critically acclaimed artists and entrepreneurs in the world, you’d be inclined to doubt the conclusions. But the data is solid, which tends to make you wonder how much better some creative bodies of work might have been and how much more work might have been created by the typical angst-ridden creators had they been shaking their booties instead of their fists.

– Jonathan Fields

(For the aformentioned data, check out the book – it’s a fascinating read).

When I have a lot to think about, I go for a long walk (at least 8 miles/2 hours.) At some point during that walk, I have a powerful flash of insight into the issues I’m wrestling with. It’s the closest thing I have to a magic button that I can press to dispense good ideas. It’s that reliable.

Fevered Mutterings image: schoolkid with hand raised, by Unlisted Sighting - Flickr

5. Ask Myself Annoying Questions

You can learn a lot by being ignorant.

Here’s a mental exercise. Answer any of the following questions with a single sentence even a child would understand.


How is electricity made?

What are black holes?

What is infinity?

Why is the sky blue?

Why do we have a leap year?

How do birds fly?

Why does cutting onions make you cry?

Where does the wind come from?

Why is the sea salty?

How big is the world?

What happens to us when we die?

What is a prime number?

Is God real?

What makes thunder?

Why do you blink?

Where do babies come from?

How do planes fly?

What is time?

How does Father Christmas get down the chimney?

Where does water come from?

– from “The children’s questions that parents find it toughest to answer“, Daily Telegraph, 08/01/2010.

Children are terrific at posing questions that cut to the chase. They don’t know that certain things are impossible to answer, so they ask them – and then keep pestering for that answer. There is enormous creative power in not knowing the bounds of the possible, and it’s usually how people find a way to exceed them.

Great ideas are born of ignorance. So pretend you don’t know it can’t possibly work. Disengage the part of your brain that says “Yeah, but…” and try facing a problem with an unshakable optimism that there is a solution and you are the one who will find it. Pester yourself, annoy yourself, and don’t take no for an answer, until out of frustration some creative part of your brain yells “OH, FOR. . . LOOK, HERE, HAVE IT, JUST SHUT UP“.

Fevered Mutterings image: FAIL stamp, by hans.gerwitz - Flickr

6. Fail And Give Up

I’m not great at hitting my own deadlines.

Luckily, there’s something I’m even worse at: giving up.

Once a deadline is passed and I’ve failed to meet it, a door opens in my mind and my work ethic rushes out, ready to do battle with the world. It’s a farce. I’m broken like this.

The way I get round it is absurd, but it seems to work. I impose a deadline I probably won’t meet, do my best to meet it…and then, when I overshoot it, I’m hit with a torrent of self-disgust mixed with fierce, stubborn brilliance. It’s at those moments that my best work results. That is when I turn around and nail it.

The trick is setting myself impossible challenges and failing at them in a way that in retrospect ticks all the boxes that define “success”. And the same goes for having good ideas. Once I’ve fully accepted the fact that I’m incapable of coming up with a decent idea today, it probably won’t be long before I have one (except being aware of that is enough to short-circuit the whole thing. It’s tricky).

As with 5), the trick is to aim too high. Want to come up with a book series idea that will be more popular than Harry Potter? DO IT. You’re certain to fail, of course — and in doing so, you’ll make something remarkable that you’ll be proud of.

Alternately, you’ll make something wretched and awful — and now it’s done and out the way, you can focus on something better.

So get out there and fail already.

Fevered Mutterings image: Naxos Town harbour - Mike Sowden

7. Tell Everyone And Everything To Go To Hell

Want to hear your own thoughts, but your world is too noisy?





…and let those thoughts bubble up uninterrupted, as you scribble them down, as you sink a well deep into yourself and single-mindedly haul that bucket to the surface again and again. Pull up everything you love and everything you fear and lay them out in front of you. Scare yourself silly with them. Think about the things that really matter to you.

Disappear from the world, like when you’re reading a good book, and don’t return until you’re ready.

If you promise to come back with something awesome, the world will wait for you.

Further reading: “How To Have An Epiphany” – Steve Blank, The Atlantic.

Images: fdecomite, JD Hancock, Unlisted Sightings, L. Marie, Tawheed Manzoorhans.gerwitz and Mike Sowden.