The Secret to Coming up With New Ideas
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To become successful at anything, you've got to practice discipline. You must do something over and over and over again to do it extremely well. And being creative is no exception.
For James Altucher, the American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur and bestselling author, discipline is key. Of the more than 20 companies he has founded or cofounded, 17 have failed, but three of them have made him tens of millions of dollars.
He’s an equally prolific writer, with 17 titles to his name, including The Power of No. Reading about Altucher in Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss’ latest book, inspired me. Ferriss writes how he’s never seen anyone build a large, committed readership faster than Altucher has.
If you can't generate ten ideas, Altucher says, you need to focus on generating 20. How? By doing the work. To start developing your “idea muscle,” write down ten of your ideas every morning on your tablet or in a tiny notebook, Altucher recommends.
Regular practice is more important than the nature of the ideas themselves, because what you really need is the confidence you can create on demand. Don't expect your ideas to be perfect; perfectionism is your enemy.
But do understand what's going on here: As Altucher explains, your brain is trying to protect you from coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer. Yet, with a little effort, you can override this impulse by coming up with bad ideas.
Altucher's perspective on discipline reminds me of another prolific writer I know, my friend and fellow contributor Daniel DiPiazza of Rich20Something. For some time now, DiPiazza has begun each of his days by writing, because he knows that doing so makes him mentally tough. It also works: In just a few months, his first book -- the result of a six-figure deal -- will hit the market.
More entrepreneurs need to embrace this notion: that you don’t need to be great. You just need to do.
Not only will you get better at that specific thing . . . you’ll be able to apply discipline to the other aspects of your life you want to improve.
I learned how closely discipline and creativity are intertwined early on in my career. For years, I wrote my ideas in a notebook every day, to exercise my creative muscle. At first, it was hard to focus for any length of time. But I had to do it. If I had waited for inspiration to strike, I’d have gone broke. That much was clear: I needed to figure out how to be in command of my creativity -- to make it work for me.
I was able to carry on with this exercise by being disciplined. Eventually I was able to come up with ideas at will. I explain it to my wife like this: It’s as if ideas are apples, and I have a bountiful apple tree in my backyard. Whenever I want, I can go pick an apple off that tree.
I don’t think I bring any particularly unique skills to the table. Growing up, I was not someone friends and family would have called creative. But I was inspired by talented friends I had who were always drawing and making things, which I thought was magical.
Then, in college, I found my creativity, by accident, when I took an art class. Right away, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I’d also been studying business, and understood that making a living as an artist in the traditional sense was going to be tough. So I taught myself how to be creative. I learned to play simple games like Mix and Match, which is where you bring two completely different ideas together to create something new. I learned to ask myself, “What if?”
If you too want to be creative, you must be both courageous and disciplined. Embracing a childlike sense of wonder is essential, but so is the fortitude to carve time out of your schedule to make that a priority! That’s kind of funny, when you think about it. But why shouldn’t play demand our dedication?
Of the pages and pages of ideas I came up with back then, almost all were funny, dumb, stupid, outrageous or fantastical. In other words, nothing came of them. But, giving myself the freedom to make mistakes -- to not be perfect, or even good, but simply to play -- enabled me to start new businesses and succeed as an entrepreneur.
The process is important. Forcing yourself to go through the motions builds confidence. It’s not as if some of us are creative and some of us are not. In a 2012 TED talk, David Kelly -- the legendary founder of IDEO and a professor at the design school at Stanford -- describes how most of us lose our creative confidence during elementary school.
It doesn’t have to be that way. You can build up your creative confidence by taking something that exists and trying to make it different.
When I started a guitar pick company, I relied on the same simple strategy. I examined picks, which hadn’t changed in ages, and imagined what they could be. To be fair, a man I knew was selling guitar picks in the shape of an alien head. Why not pick up where he left off?
For me, visuals stimulate my creativity. So I went to the mall to look around Hot Topic, which I knew was hip. And, at the time, skulls were in. They were everywhere. Guitar picks are similarly shaped, I thought. Why couldn’t picks be made into skulls and the faces of vampires and ghouls? When I took my sketchpad out, other brand extensions came to mind, like picks made into the shape of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh.
I also thought about whether the material could be changed, as well. The result was a series of lenticular picks. We could fit 13 frames of movement onto a singular lenticular pick. When you moved the pick, so did the image on it. In other words, we could put mini movies on picks! That's how we made a pick featuring Taylor Swift strumming back and forth.
When we visited brick and mortars to understand how guitar picks were being packaged, we discovered that they weren’t: They were sold jumbled together in plastic bags or tackle boxes. Clearly, we could do better. If we packaged picks in plastic clamshells, we could include spooky graphics to better market them. We took this impulse a step further, and designed some of the clamshells to look like coffin cases.
What am I saying here? My partner and I were able to build a thriving product business by looking at things differently and having fun.
So, really, I could not agree with Altucher more: Abandon the need to be perfect. Try to come up with as many ideas you can.
Because, if you can get good at coming up with truly terrible ideas, you’re going to generate some good ones along the way.