Linus Pauling said “the best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” I’ve been scribbling ideas on scraps of paper since high school. These have led to hundreds of articles, stories, philosophies, approaches, plans, and a couple of patent publications. Going for lots of ideas has enriched my life in many ways, but where do these ideas – good or bad – come from? How do you generate a spark?
Let it bleed. For me, emotion is key to getting ideas. Sometimes, this is dramatic, as when I am in an emergency situation with my adrenaline pumping and I need to improvise a solution. Or when I’m doing Q&A after a talk and someone asks a good, unexpected question. In both these cases, action must follow right away, putting the pressure on. I’ve found I can emulate these real live situations by using dictation software and a timer. If I give myself ten timed minutes to come up with a new perspective on a problem, a list of solutions or an answer to a question, and I need to say it out loud, it feels like an emergency. I used to just type until the timer went off, but the physical act of saying it out loud is more powerful for me.
Follow a lead. Curiosity comes automatically with emotion, a kind of intellectual hunger. When I was a kid, I’d sit down for hours with the encyclopedia, with one article leading to another. I do the same today on the Web, totally hooked by questions begetting questions. Not only does this practice spark ideas directly, but it provides me with a cache of facts and data that I draw upon when I need good ideas. Not everyone is a slave to his or her curiosity. When I wrote about curiosity some years ago (I have the original article, which seems to have disappeared from the Web – but I’ll provide it on request via email@example.com), I came up with these curiosity builders you might try:
- Put yourself into new situations that challenge your worldview (and imagine they are true)
- Actively observe, rigorously recording the input to all your senses
- Come up with your own list of great questions
- Question the status quo
- Give yourself permission to look at things differently
- Build your skills at investigating
- Have a perspective
- Make time for curiosity
- Be persistent
- Keep notes on your observations, insights and conclusions
- Solve puzzles
- Get other perspectives
Find a need. Good answers come from good questions. Some of the best questions are raised by problems, especially persistent problems. I’ve had the best results by doing two things: first, writing down the conventional answers and challenging (or dismissing them. (This is part of an unlearning process that opens my mind to new possibilities.) Second, I take the obvious questions and go beyond them. I ask the question in a more specific way or a more abstract way. I ask the question in a way I’d ask it of an expert in an unrelated discipline or in a way I’d ask an elementary school student. (Sometimes, I actually do ask these questions of others, and I get surprising answers.) This sort of exploration provides new dimensions to the problems, and sometimes it leads me into whole new areas of thought.
By the way, playing with the ideas in ways that engender rich conversations can help you develop ideas – which often are incomplete. I’ve written an article on this, and it is still available.)
Linus Pauling was right about getting a lot of ideas, but they don’t just happen for many people. To get ideas, you must value ideas and collect them. So let it bleed, follow the lead, and find the need.