We received a question from an Office Hours listener: “When someone gives me a good idea, I’m great at executing on it, but I’m not good at being the guy who comes up with the creative idea. This hasn’t created any major problems for me because I surround myself with smart people and I ask questions that lead to useful insights. But I’m curious, how can a guy like me get better at coming up with creative ideas?”
The old saying, “You are what you eat”, applies to the creative process. If you want to be creative and come up with ideas, the best thing you can do is engage the creative ideas that are already out there. Not because you want to copy or emulate them, but because creative ideas catalyze other creative ideas.
Use your idea muscle. Take in ideas, engage things you find interesting, and you will get ideas in return.
“If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.” – Ray Bradbury
You aren’t very likely to have much success by going out in the woods, sitting there alone, and saying, “Okay, Brain! Give me that brilliant, original idea!” You are more likely to spark your own ideas if you consume the most creative, original content out there that interests you, even if it is completely unrelated to what you are trying to work on. You can come up with ideas for software while reading sociology as easily as while reading about computer science.
Your brain is an alchemist. Consuming existing ideas gives your brain the raw materials it needs to go through that alchemical transformative process and turn them into something new.
All creative acts are a recombination of existing things and ideas that are already out there. That doesn’t mean there are no original ideas–far from it. What is means is that you need raw resources to begin with. You can’t create a sculpture out of thin air. You need a hunk of granite first.
Need some good content to get you thinking? Here are some interesting things to read or listen to:
- The Hidden Life of Trees will make you look at trees as living, breathing, feeling, speaking beings.
- The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is the story of a fearless young woman who created a business to support her sisters after her father and brother were forced to flee Kabul.
- A Burglar’s Guide to the City will make you think about all the ways you can use architecture in unintended ways.
- EYES is a short film which shows how simple colors, shapes, and movements can convey so much emotion and character.
- Seveneves will make you think about the colonization of space and the and evolution in
- Life 3.0 examines humanity’s role in the age of artificial intelligence. Unlike other books in this area, it takes a positive view.
- Luna: New Moon will make you think about new social structures and what it might be like to live on the moon.
- The Secret Life of Lobsters will make you think about something you’ve probably never considered: The biology, politics, and history of lobstering.
- Inherit the Stars and Giants’ Star will make you reconsider what humans’ place in the universe is.
- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is an expose on how to have your analytics and graphs be understood and taken seriously.
- Every story in Stories of Your Life and Others starts with something you know and takes it in a completely different direction.
- Unflattening is a comic that weaves together diverse ways of seeing, drawing from science, philosophy, art, literature, and mythology.
- Algorithms to Live By explains how we can use computer science in our everyday lives to make better decisions.
- On Fairy-Stories is J. R. R. Tolkein’s discussion of the fairy story as a literary form.
- Great Chain of Numbers explores the possibilities of smart contracts, smart property, and trustless asset management.
- A House in the Sky is the memoir of Amanda Lindhout’s fifteen month abduction in Somalia and how she survived it.
- Finite and Infinite Games makes you confront your relationship with yourself, the people around you, and society, then it opens up a world of possibilities.
- A Mind at Play explains the history of information theory and explores how Claude Shannon came up with it.
- The Light in High Places is part ecological study of life above the tree line in the Wyoming wilderness, and part lyrical exposition about life in the mountains.
- Methuselah’s Children is a story about a group of people who achieve long life spans through generations of selective breeding.
- Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance explains just how deeply formal and informal institutions affect our daily lives and the economy in general.
- Pipino Gentleman Thief is a true story about an art thief, the detective who chased him, and the local mob in the middle of it all.
- The Invisible Hook is about the informal institutions that governed 18th century pirates and their behavior.
- My Traitor’s Heart is an autobiographical account of a man coming to terms with his family’s history with architecting apartheid and the physical, emotional, and political damage it caused.
- Tristan Harris reveals the software design patterns that manipulate us and explains how we can take back control.