Over the last four years, I’ve amassed a tangled array of thousands of notes on things I find interesting or useful. They’re collected from some combination books, blog posts, songs, tweets, Wikipedia pages, news articles, forum posts, things people say, and ideas that drift into my brain.
Having previously shared some of my notes on writing as thinking in public and on improving writing quality, here’s a selection of my notes on ideation: where ideas come from, how to have more of them, how to be creative, and so on. (Parts marked with Thoughts: are my own ideas written as reminders or summaries.)
From Where Good Ideas Come From — Steven Johnson
‘The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.’
Always be reviewing
Thoughts: Ideas come easiest when I’m immersed in varied, novel information — but this only works if I’m constantly reviewing what I’ve learned, capturing and summarising it, and stepping back to see the bigger picture.
Towards the end of 2020, I realised I was reading too much. Not so much books (which would have been fine on their own), but too many blog posts, articles, papers, transcripts, guides, and so on. I kept collecting information and making notes, yet I wasn’t managing to process it in order to see a bigger picture and do anything with it. Now I’m gradually sorting through everything I accumulated, hence why posts like this one are good to write.
Nothing is original
From Jim Jarmusch
‘Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”’
Use a simpler medium
Thoughts: Sometimes I find it easier to come up with ideas when I switch to a simpler medium, in particular if it’s physically smaller than a word document or notebook page. I think it works because it’s less intimidating and feels unimportant. E.g:
- Index cards
- The notes app on my iPhone
- Margins of old to-do lists
- Post-it notes
- Book margins (sorry)
Lottery tickets for creativity
From The Creative Habit — Twyla Tharp
‘Reading, conversation, environment, culture, heroes, mentors, nature — all are lottery tickets for creativity. Scratch away at them and you’ll find out how big a prize you’ve won.’
Thoughts: This is a good reminder to get out of your own head and put yourself in situations where things can surprise you. One thing I’ve noticed about pandemic life lately is that it’s so much harder to get out into the world and experience the kind of unexpected ideas that come from talking to people, seeing exhibitions, visiting new places, etc. Online we’re all going round in circles in our little filter bubbles, only seeing stuff that’s similar to what we already like. It’s so much harder to be surprised.
Look for relationships
From A Technique for Producing Ideas — James Webb Young
‘An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.’
Thoughts: Ideas are networks. They never exist in isolation, they’re always connected to each other. A big part of creativity seems to be the capacity to see those connections and to take an idea from one network and attach it to another.
Viewing concepts as part of networks is useful when learning new things. The further a concept is from your existing knowledge, the more connections you’re missing.
If something doesn’t make sense, you might need to expand outwards from it until you have more of a foundation for it. Once you learn the directly adjacent concepts or the ones with the most links to it, you likely understand a lot better. The further out into the network you move, the deeper your understanding becomes.
My guess is that when we learn something without having much wider context for it, we end up plugging it into a network we already understand. People see pretty much everything in terms of whatever they know best.
To systematise creativity, try:
- Intentionally entering diffuse mode (mind-wandering) — take a walk or shower, think about the problem before bed, work in it first thing in the morning, meditate on a topic.
- Make idea lists — list every possible solution to a problem, list 100 ideas then prune down to one, generate many and use the least common ones.
- Combine/recombine existing ideas
- Use random prompts (e.g. a random word generator) as a starting point — someday I’d like to challenge myself to write 100 words on each of 100 randomly generated words
- Use thought experiments — constrain resources, increase resources, eliminate options, work backwards from a solution.
- Use question prompts — So what? What if? What if the opposite is true? Does it matter? What if I needed to solve this once and for good? What would X do?
- Incorporate constraints — remove restrictions, add restrictions, redefine boundaries, constrain time.
- Reframe the problem — list and reject assumptions, look at it from someone else’s perspective, look at it with different emotions, look at it through the lens of a different discipline, ask someone else what they would do, replace words with non-sensical stand ins, treat everything you’ve done so far as research.
Summarised from SysCreativity.
Generating idea flow
From Jeremy Nixon:
‘1. Write. Free Writing, Essays, Book Writing, etc.
2. Find the best online communities that I can and comment/post about topics that I care about in the space.
3. Idea Lists. Time limited brainstorming, forcing myself to get to a high count.
4. Read. 4 books a week was the time of greatest idea flow for me. Doing that as a lifestyle was extremely time consuming and even more rewarding.
5. Social — Meeting regularly with my smartest friends.
6. Professors. They give the best worldview critiques and are great for looking up solutions and generating ideas.
7. Taking the best books and compress them into runable algorithms. Experiment based off of them and run them regularly.
8. Set out all of the best ideas in a field or space. Search exhaustively. And then compress the space into the strongest and most general ideas, and train thinking with that frame.’
Thoughts: I always find it easier to come up with ideas if I conceptualise them as a regular flow, not one-off chance occurrences. This works best if I’m working on the same kind of thing almost every day and it always gets harder if I interrupt it for a while. Taking a break is good if I’ve hit some kind of wall, but it’s bad if I break a flow of ideas. Ideas come easiest when I’m immersed in interesting, novel information in many different formats.
Let ideas incubate
Bertrand Russel quoted in The Dynamics of Creation:
‘When I was young each fresh piece of serious work used to seem to me for a time — perhaps a long time — to be beyond my powers. I would fret myself into a nervous state from fear that it was never going to come right. I would make one unsatisfying attempt after another, and in the end would have to discard them all.
At last I found that such fumbling attempts were a waste of time. It appeared that after first contemplating a book on some subject, and after giving serious preliminary attention to it, I needed a period of subconscious incubation which could not be hurried and was if anything impeded by deliberate thinking. Sometimes I would find, after a time, that I had made a mistake and that I could not write the book I had in mind. But often I was more fortunate.
Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what appeared as a revelation.’
Thoughts: There’s a difficult tradeoff between working on something straight away to preserve excitement and letting it sit for a while. I find that incubating ideas for a while means I’m less likely to do anything with them, but when I do, it results in something much better quality.
Sleep on it
Attributed to Thomas Edison
‘Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.’
Thoughts: For a while I got into a routine of picking a problem or prompt to think about before going to sleep every night and almost always woke up to find I’d made some kind of progress on it.
The Made-Up Award Principle
From Robert Heaton:
‘When deciding what to write about, I have two principles that I try to follow:
1. The Made-Up-Award Principle: every post should at least try to be the best on the internet at *something*
2. The Netflix Principle: every post should provide long-term, incremental value to readers of my blog for at least the next 5 years.’
Play with density vs comprehensibility
Thoughts: Sometimes I find it useful to take an existing idea and make it either denser or more comprehensible. Making it denser means condensing it down into the smallest possible form. Making it more comprehensible generally means decreasing the density, using words with less meaning concentrated into them. This turns it into something new and reveals new sides of it.
From Lila by Robert Pirsig:
‘Because he didn’t pre-judge the fittingness of new ideas or try to put them in order but just let them flow in, these ideas sometimes came in so fat he couldn’t write them down quickly enough. The subject matter, a whole metaphysics, was so enormous the flow had turned into an avalanche.’
Thoughts: Another reason why it’s good to be immersed in a regular flow of ideas is that I find having more ideas makes me less judgmental and less likely to discard something before exploring it. Although it’s not particularly healthy, once in a while I find that pulling an all-nighter to think about something with no particular agenda helps me get unstuck. I think it works because being awake all night puts me in a state where nothing I do feels more or less significant than anything else.
In the early hours of the morning after hours of thinking, I find it easy to forget other people exist and just be in my own head, meaning I can record a lot of ideas, many of which I would discard during the day.
Have a schedule
Thoughts: Paul Silvia writes in How to Write a Lot that the best way to come up with creative ideas on a regular basis is simply to have a schedule. Research suggests that people who write to a schedule have more creative ideas. The advice to just keep showing up is extremely common (from the Ribbon Farm long-form course which I took last year ‘RULE: if you show up for the daemon appointment every single time, the daemon will show up SOMETIMES.’)
Theme and variation
‘…the idea of theme and variation is to start with a short piece of music by oneself or someone else (often a well-known melody) and to transform and reimagine it in a series of vignettes. These may be based on the theme’s melody, harmony, bass line, or some combination of them. The variation form is an ideal learning exercise for a student because it amounts to studying a fundamental element of what *composition* is about: taking a piece of material, an idea, and transforming it into new passages that share an underlying essence but sound different. So a student learns that an essential part of composing is a matter of contrast and diversity founded on unity and invention: fashioning many things from one thing.
…Beethoven developed his playing the same way he developed his composing: by experimenting and by studying other accomplished musicians. Throughout his life, in all things musical he modeled what he did on what he perceived to be the best of its kind, then took the models his own direction.’