How I Get Ideas
Herewith, ten idiosyncratic observations on the subject of generating ideas.
1. Ideas seem to come by themselves, unbidden.
In certain careers that I’ve spent time in—advertising and the movie business, for example—I’ve labored under conditions where you have to produce on demand. It’s hard. It’s do-able, but it’s never really worked for me. I can’t press. It’s hard for me to grind ’em out.
2. Ideas seem to come in off-moments.
They appear when the brain is turned off. For me that’s when I’m half asleep, pre-dawn or tossing in the middle of the night; when I’m in the shower or shaving, or driving on the freeway.
3. Ideas don’t arrive with noisy fanfare.
Even the giant ideas, like those for books that will take three years to write, appear as part of a stream of other thoughts, many of which are mundane. The blockbuster idea is just one notion out of 150, or 1050, that you have through the day. “Gee, I need to pick up my dry cleaning.” Then, “Let’s write Moby Dick.”
4. Ideas are coming in all day.
I was on a farm in Idaho once, in a gigantic underground bunker where potatoes were being sorted on an assembly line. Farm kids stood by a conveyor belt, under the lights, while thousands of potatoes tumbled past every hour. That’s what ideas feel like to me. They’re always there. The trick is training yourself to notice.
5. Good ideas have a feel to them.
The kids in Idaho were sorting the potatoes. Their job was to pick out the good ones. It was amazing to watch their hands fly. They kicked the bad ones out and guided the good ones through.
A good idea has a feel to it like a potato. You can tell a winner. A big idea feels meaty and russet. You can sense it.
6. Resistance appears .0001 of a second after a good idea.
Resistance wants you to dismiss that good idea. The voice in your head will say: “That idea? Worthless. I’ve seen that one a million times.”
Suppose you do notice the idea. Resistance will try to make you forget it. “Ooh, you’re right, that is a good one. No need to make a note though. I’m sure you’ll remember it.”
I never go anywhere, including to sleep, without a notepad or a pocket tape recorder.
7. When a good idea appears and you fasten onto it, you realize that you’ve had it before.
Great ideas in my experience don’t leap out of the water like a trout. Other, similar trout have come before them. Precursors. Adumbrations. (I’ve been waiting for years to use that word.)
You realize, once you truly get the idea, that in fact it has been preoccupying you forever but you’ve just never taken it seriously, or never imagined it emerging into its realized form. “Ah, that’s a book!” “Hey, that’s a new business!”
8. Ideas come as responses to intentions.
I can’t prove this, because the time lag is so extreme. But, as my dear friend Printer Bowler says, it’s as if you have “placed an order.” You’ve always wanted to write a film noir. Since you were a kid, your dream has been to help struggling people get on their feet. All of a sudden the idea pops into your head to write Chinatown or to invent micro-finance lending.
9. There’s no such thing as a non-creative person.
Again I can’t prove this because I can’t peek inside other people’s heads. But I will bet the ranch that you and I are having as many great ideas as Einstein or Woody Allen. We’re just not noticing them. Or, when we do, the voice of Resistance outwits us and makes us dismiss or disown them.
10. Pay attention to the potatoes.
Here we are, you and I, standing beside that conveyor belt in the underground bunker in Idaho. Thousands of potatoes are rolling past us every hour. Some of ’em are stone beauties.
Snatch that spud. Grab it like the brass ring—and hang on for dear life.