New Ideas Suck

September 28, 2020

I have a love/hate relationship with new ideas.

I admire writers like Anne-Laure from Ness Labs who brilliantly writes articles on how to think better or Shane Parrish from Farnam Street with his articles on mental models and how society interacts with one another.

Honestly, I get discouraged thinking I'll never be able to write something from scratch like they have or spin a topic and look at it from a new perspective. My mind just doesn't think like that. Or so I thought.

In a spark of brilliance one day, I tweeted "Your inputs effect your outputs. Want better ideas? Consumer better things."

I was then reminded of an article Nat Eliason wrote called, "How to Improve Idea Flow", where he talked about auditing your consumption channels.

If you look at my Instagram feed, Youtube homepage, the people I follow on Twitter, or the podcasts I listen to, they are all talking about the same thing. Most people I follow on Twitter are talking about building in public, note-taking, or startups. All the podcasts I listen to are about building businesses or interviews with the same 7 - 10 people on different podcasts, and the people I subscribe to on Youtube are all under the same filmmaking/technology niche.

No wonder I wasn't coming up with new ideas, I was in a vat of the same 10 - 15, getting thrown around with different words being used to describe them. You can't come up with new ideas if you spend time thinking about the same ones.

My hunch is most people struggle with this problem as well. People who are marketers follow the same 5-10 marketers and use their strategies, people who like to build e-commerce businesses follow the same few giants and try what they did. Science fiction geeks read the same books and watch the same tv shows over and over again - everyone is stuck learning what they've already learned.

So, what do we do? As Nat puts in his article, start auditing your inputs. Only follow one (maybe two) people in each niche you're interested in. Then, start stealing.

How to Steal New Ideas

In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon gives some actionable steps on how to and why you should steal ideas from different domains and repurpose them. Nothing is original.

Collect Good Ideas, No Matter the Domain

When you rely on a narrow set of inputs to influence your ideas, you're wearing a mental straitjacket. Your cognitive range of motion is very limited. In the words of Charlie Munger, "All the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department."

People who are world class thinkers are silo-free thinkers, avoiding the habit of looking at life through one lens. This is why you need to develop liquid knowledge. Knowledge that easily flows from one topic to the next.

Another way to look at collecting ideas from different domains is through lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a term that was coined in the 1960s and defined the reimagining of information in new contexts. By drawing together seemingly irrelevant concepts or domains, you can create new uses for old ideas.

My favorite example of this is when people read history books or biographies to learn how to lead. Most problems in the world are new problems that can be solved with old solutions, so reading history can be a great way to learn effective communication, or help you come up with a go-to-market strategy.

One thing I've started doing recently is listening to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History Podcast. They are four hour long podcast episode that Carline unpacks famous historical events and applies his unconventional thinking to past circumstances.

A few other podcasts with varying themes are Revisionist History with Malcom Gladwell or Hidden Brain from NPR.

Creativity and innovation arise at the intersection of ideas. Don't miss a great idea because you're on the wrong block.

Steal the Thinking, Not the Content

One of the best ways to recreate ideas and come up with "original" thoughts is to understand the thought process of someone you admire.

As I mentioned earlier, I admire Shane Parish and Anne-Laure. So, I might do some digging on how they are able to synthesize the information from sources to come up with new ideas. If I can get a grasp on how they think, not just what they think, I might be able to emulate my own idea around a certain topic. Emulation is when imitation goes one step further and you create your own ideas with stolen concepts.

James Clear does this quite often in his articles. In the footnotes section, he will add his sources, but sometimes will comment, "Hat tip to person x for inspiring this article", he did it here. I opened the article he mentioned to see how similar the two articles are and they sort of have the same title and basic information about Shoshin, but Clear has added relevant examples that his reader would like and stories that are personal to him. This is a great example of how to steal the thinking but not the content.

Forget the Good Stuff, Add the Great Stuff

In this age of information overload and abundance, no one wants a 5,000 word mediocre article.

What someone does want is for you to drastically change their worldview in 500 words or less - that's true talent.

So when you get ready to write that article, film that video, or record that podcast, only add the great stuff. The stuff that you think no one's heard before. That story you thought was fascinating, or that one liner that rocked your world when you penned it.

Less, but better.

FOOTNOTES