Where are all the good ideas?
Musings on Capturing Fleeting Thoughts
I promise you they aren’t on Reddit. Or Facebook. Or Instagram.
Believe me, I’ve checked.
Seth Godin wrote a brilliant April Fool’s Day post about being entirely out of ideas. His point, though tongue-in-cheek, was that he had used up all of his good ideas. That’s it. He’s done. It’s over.
But of course, that’s not true.
The best place for new ideas is the same place we got the old ideas. It’s the place where ideas originate before they are judged on their merit. It’s that special space that kids draw from endlessly and adults are afraid to wander to.
It’s the back of your own head.
The truth is that good ideas and bad ideas aren’t created differently. They come from the same source. They are indistinguishable until much later in their life cycle.
Much like children, jobs, projects, and investments: it’s nearly impossible to tell where they will end up based on where they start.
So why judge them before they are ready?
Ed Catmull’s brilliant book Creativity Inc., about Pixar and the way it creates magic, has a chapter called Ugly Baby, Hungry Beast. In it, he outlines that there are two forces at work in terms of creativity: the ugly baby — the not-yet-fully-formed idea that is still unattractive, difficult, and immature — and the hungry beast — the natural force of the group to devour and tear apart anything that comes across it. The role of a creative organization is to systematically temper the Hungry Beast from tearing apart Ugly Babies — at least before they are matured.
Great ideas take time. Don’t shoot them down too early.
So where do good ideas come from?
I haven’t a clue. But I know where ideas come from. And that’s a never-ending wellspring, full of mystery, surprise, and insight.
If you want better ideas, you need to get to the bottom of the wellspring. You need to get through the bad ideas, the so-so ideas, and the not-yet-fully-formed ideas to get to the good ones.
When the path from waking to the creative idea wellspring is well worn — or rather, when you put in a two-lane highway and the people at the coffee shop know you by name because you visit so often — the good ideas will show up.
And what if they don’t?
Well, then you’re totally screwed.
Of course not — I’m just kidding — but what has worked for me is taking a step back.
When I’m out of ideas, I go for a walk. Or make a cup of tea. Or exercise. Or play the piano. Or do something else creative. Or take a nap. Or call my mom.
When I’m out of ideas, I just take a break. I give the wellspring a chance to refill. Sometimes, you just hit the bedrock at the bottom.
Thankfully, I walk to work everyday, which is not only a great form of exercise, it is refreshing, rejuvenating, (sometimes cold and rainy or hot and sweaty) and always inspiring.
It’s amazing how many good ideas you get from just going out in the world.
I’ve designed my apartment to be the kind of place I can focus on a single idea and see it through to completion. This entire article was written there. But it’s not a great place for finding new inspiration. I do that intentionally, because otherwise I would never have the wherewithal to see anything through.
The best place for new inspiration, for me, is a long walk.
The world is a brilliant, expansive, enlightening place. If you can quiet your mind, expand your senses, and get out into the world, I promise you the ideas will come to you.
So stop asking where the good ideas come from. My best guess? The same place as everything else. They’re just all mixed together.
If you want more good ideas, start collecting more ideas.
Brendan is the Palette 2 Hardware Team Lead at Mosaic Manufacturing, and blogs about startups, mental models and why hardware is hard here. He’s a Venture for Canada alumni, coffee aficionado, and cookbook collector. If he were an action figure, the three items he would come with are: a coffee mug, a library card, and a chef’s knife.