For the last month or so I’ve been practicing James Altucher’s habit of writing down ten ideas every day.
I agree with Altucher that you can exercise the “idea muscle” and improve your idea-generating abilities. Almost any kind of intellectual activity can be improved with practice, and at the same time degrades with lack of use. I’m not even sure that I believe in “general intelligence” anymore. Human beings are either good or bad at doing particular things. 95% of that ability is determined by the amount of active practice (not just practicing but actively trying to improve your skills and knowledge). But what about innate ability? Sure, we all have genetic proclivities, but babies who might become geniuses still can’t do anything except cry and shit their diaper. Life takes practice.
Some abilities function as meta-abilities, conveying benefit to nearly all other abilities. Learning how to learn is one such meta-ability. So is learning how to think critically. Writing might be a meta-ability, because writing forces you to think more clearly, and thinking clearly has limitless benefits. Chess and mathematics might be meta-abilities for the same reason. Some sports that have both deep strategic and physical elements (jiu-jitsu, American football, tennis) might qualify too.
The ability to generate ideas rapidly and prolifically is definitely a meta-ability. What if every time you had a problem you could easily come up with ten or twenty possible solutions, instead of zero or one?
Pick a Topic and Brainstorm
I found it was easier and faster to complete the exercise when I picked a single topic or category. Sometimes I picked a serious topic, sometimes completely frivolous. Sometimes my list was directly relevant to my own life, sometimes not. I put zero onus on taking action on any of the ideas — the point was simply to exercise my idea-generating “muscles.” Altucher mentions that he sometimes creates a “first steps” column next to the idea column (Richard Branson’s first step after getting the idea to start an airline was to call Boeing and ask if he could lease a plane). For this exercise I didn’t even do that much — I just made a quick list of roughly ten ideas every morning.
Some of my idea list topics/categories:
- Creepy Villains
- Vlog Topics
- Iconic World Aspects
- Clothing Item Wish List
- Today’s Complaints
- Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Elements
- Living Room Furniture Changes
- No Car Month Transportation Challenges
- Housing Options for a Family Member
- Small Household Repairs That Need Doing
- Restoration Scenario Short-Story Ideas
- TV Shows
- Ways Bay Area Could Improve
- General Ideas (no particular topic)
After about a month of doing this exercise I noticed two subtle but potentially powerful changes in my thinking, including:
- More often, I would find myself taking a few more minutes to think of additional ideas before starting to take action on a task or tackling a problem. Idea generating takes effort, but it takes a lot less effort than leaping into an inefficient (or worse, ineffective) approach to a problem.
- For creative work, I noticed that my first few ideas were sometimes too easy, obvious, or overused. I started to think in terms of “cliche clearing” — get those first few ideas written down and out of the way so I can move on to meatier, more interesting material.
The expression “ideas are cheap” doesn’t quite work for me. Good ideas are valuable, and require effort to generate. While the best ideas often seem to “come out of nowhere,” I think we’re more likely to luck into the occasional brilliant epiphany by putting some conscious effort into idea generation.
What’s your experience with generating ideas? Do you rely on luck? Exercise? Long showers? Walking in the woods? If you’ve tried Altucher’s exercise, what was your experience?