How To Have More Ideas

I work in advertising. I run a (very) small business. I am an improviser. I have to come up with new ideas every day. I wish I could have more ideas.

Some days, they come naturally. They sneak up behind me (non-creepily) in the shower or while I’m working on something totally unrelated. I have no clue where they came from or why they’ve paid me a visit.

The idea fairy, I suppose. Or divine inspiration. It’s best not to question these things.

Other weeks, I pace around my apartment or crtl-T → facebook.com → ctrl-W over and over again until I reach the end of the Internet. It’s only when I’m ready to give up that an idea finally decides to humor me. It knocks on my door with nothing more than protestations that it would have come earlier had its car not broken down on the highway or if it didn’t have to walk its cat first. It didn’t even bother to bring flowers. Typical.

The idea fairy can visit no matter your art, no matter the time, no matter the place. And if she ever does, you’ll spend your whole life trying to get her to come back around.

Nowhere in my life has this been more apparent than on the improv stage.

The shows I nostalgically look back on as nearly perfect were those in which I was “totally in the moment” or “not in my head.” When the idea fairy came to town.

But all this nonsense is just a fancy way of saying that, on a few isolated occasions, I didn’t have to think too much or work too hard to make the magic I normally pour blood, sweat, and tears into each and every week.

I always want it to be that easy. I don’t like hard work.

For better or worse, the idea fairy isn’t real. Divine inspiration isn’t real. Obi Wan and the Wizard of Oz were right — the power’s been in you all along. Use the force, dummy.

When you feel inspired, all that’s really happening is that your mouth (in improv; in other art forms it could be your hands, feet, whatever) is moving faster than your brain. You just blurt out the first thing that comes to mind because you don’t have the time to slow down, judge it, and dismiss it. In these moments, the idea dam breaks. All these genius thoughts you never knew about, the ones that were all blocked up, afraid to be judged, come gushing out.

That’s why the best improv happens when you don’t preplan. It’s why the initiation you thought about for three minutes on the sidelines never gets the same reaction as an initiation you didn’t even know you were going to say.

You don’t need to stick a lightning rod on your head and go outside with your golf club raised high, waiting for ideas and inspiration to strike. You can make them come to you.

My favorite improv warm up game is called 7 Things. Here’s how it works:

Everyone stands in a circle and a player asks the person to their left to name seven things in a category. For example, seven things they could jump over, seven planets they’d like to visit, or seven animals they’d free from the zoo. Then, that person has to come up with seven things quickly, and no matter what they say, everyone else in the circle must shout “yes” after each response.

When you’re in the spotlight, the first few answers come easily. You can jump over a shoe, a rock, a skateboard…but then you run out of steam. The only solution is to just start naming whatever comes to mind, anything that comes to mind, even if it’s not technically correct. Like a house, or the moon, or a giraffe.

You’ll notice that no one laughs at your first few answers, but when you get to the middle, the group starts cracking up.

They laugh, not because your answers become absurd. They laugh out of surprise — the surprising disruption of the pattern, yes, but more importantly, the surprise you feel from saying whatever it is that you say. The surprise that comes from breaking the idea barrier and accessing something beyond consciousness that you didn’t know was there.

The fact that everyone has to say “yes,” no matter what you say, gives you permission to literally shout out anything. There are no wrong answers.

So imagine my delight when I discovered a blog post by James Altucher about a daily exercises he does called 10 Ideas.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Every day, James spends around 15 minutes coming up with 10 ideas around a topic — businesses he could start today, people he could call for advice, books he could write, etc.

And if he can’t come up with 10 business he could start today? Well…that’s the point.

He has to keep listing ideas, no matter how unrealistic they may seem, until he reaches 10. Most will end up in the trash, but odds are that a few of ideas number 4–10 will surprise him. They’ll be good. And he would have never found those ideas if he hadn’t put himself on the spot and said “yes” after writing down each one.

The magic of these two exercises is that they force the idea fairy to show up. When you put yourself on the spot and say “yes” to each idea, you’ll discover a few things you didn’t know were lurking around between your brain wrinkles.

That’s why I try to play 7 Things before each improv show.

In James’ blog post, he promises that doing his exercise every day for six months will change your life. Who knows if that’s true?

Here’s what I do know: in the last month of trying this out, in just 15 minutes each day, I’ve come up with 300+ ideas I never would have had otherwise. And if you start doing this exercise every day, even for a week, you’ll feel more creative. You’ll stop waiting around for inspiration. You’ll start doing something. You’ll make something. You’ll surprise yourself.

Soon, the hardest thing you’ll have to think about will be new topics for your brainstorming. But in that case, couldn’t you just use your 15 minutes to come up with 10 new topics?

Yes.


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