How Great Founders Find Great Ideas


Entrepreneurship and productivity magazines are rife with articles and posts about how you can “launch your company without any seed money!” or “make progress on your venture today!” These articles can be useful for helping you make incremental progress on an idea you already have, but what if you don’t have a project yet?

There’s no formula for a good idea. Good ideas are creative. To develop a good idea, you must engage in the moment of creation. Many company founders, authors, and artists will note that their best ideas don’t come to them during sessions of brainstorming, but simply on a whim — in conversation, while walking, or just as a passing thought.

If your company were rational, somebody else would have done it already.
— Evan Baehr, cofounder, Able

Billionaire investor Peter Thiel says in his 2014 book, Zero to One that the moment of creation isn’t about rehashing old ideas or simply moving existing resources around to make them more efficient — it’s about discovering secrets. The tricky thing about secrets is that they are secret. Discovering secrets takes work and time. Some will be dead-ends, but some will lead to the next big thing (who would have thought that you could build a $40B+ company off of connecting people with empty seats in their cars with people who need rides?). If there was a formula to discovering secrets, there would be no more secrets.

So discovering your next venture or project isn’t about following a formula, but you can inculcate certain habits and attitudes that help move towards innovation.

Ultimately, innovation comes down to creatively producing, which can be broken down into:

  1. Productivity — are you creating something new at a good rate?
  2. Contrarianism — are you looking to create things in places and in ways that others aren’t? You can create a widget every day that is the same as one somebody built the day before, but that won’t lead to anything new in itself. Are you creating something nobody else is?

Achieving a mindset that begets productive contrarianism is key. Looking for new ways to create value and new ways of doing things will help uncover the secrets of the world. Doing what everybody else is won’t lead you to producing ways to secrets, even if it may lead to increased productivity overall.

Putting yourself in a productive mindset requires a series of habits. Here are some ways to achieve this:

  1. Blog every day — Blogging is the act of creation. Write a review of a book you read, commentary on an idea you’ve been thinking about, a poem, a story, or simply write about writing. The core idea here is to actually go about creating something every day — even if it is just a string of words and sentences that convey ideas.
  2. Undertake a self-development project — Self-development projects are simply projects where you look to improve on some element of yourself. This can mean going to the gym every day, reading every day, launching a new venture, or just inculcating some habit that you believe improves on yourself as an open-ended project.
  3. Actively look for places to add value — Look for the places where things can be done better, where you can go above and beyond expectations, and where solutions are being overlooked. Maybe your expectations at work require you to do A, B, and C. Nobody is doing D, though. Do D — add value to your organization, and see the world as a place for more and more things to be done in.

Creation begets creation, so getting in the mindset of creating — blog posts, value in the self, value in work — will help prime the mind for a bias for action.

A contrarian mindset is more difficult to foster. Going against the grain and breaking the mold can be a start, but doing these just for the sake of contrarian-ness won’t help the mind think in a way others do not.

Start by asking yourself why you are doing the things you are. Is it because others expect it of you? Is it because it’s the default? Or is it the opposite? Are you opposing the crowd just to oppose the crowd? Why?

The best way to start with a contrarian mindset is to be contrarian to your own biases and beliefs. Why do you believe what you do? A critical, philosophical mindset will help you understand why you hold the beliefs you do. You can’t create new ways of seeing things until you understand why you currently see things as you do.

The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd, but to think for yourself.
— Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Zachary Slayback is the Business Development Director for Praxis, a twelve-month program for entrepreneurial learners. Zachary dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after seeing firsthand how college fails the most ambitious students. He writes regularly on education, schooling, and philosophy at zakslayback.com.

Originally published as “Productive Contrarianism: How to Create the Next Big Thing” at blog.discoverpraxis.com on February 17, 2015.