“Ideas are like rabbits,” John Steinbeck once said, “You get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you have a dozen.” Sure, but how do you get those first couple of ideas?
One way is to take a look at a very short book called — appropriately enough — “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” the classic 48-pager from James Webb Young. It was first published in 1965. But it’s so simple a process, it can apply in any age. Yep, even today.
Now, before we get started, a warning: Says Young, if you don’t think you’re an “idea person”… well… according to Young… there’s a possibility you might be right. Not everybody is, claims Young. And to make the case, he cites the great Italian economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto.
You may have heard of Pareto. He’s the one who came up with the famous “80-20” principle. He’s also the one who suggested you could divvy up the world into two kinds of people — the “rentier” and the “speculator.”
The “rentier” (Pareto wrote in the then international language of French) is the kind of person that sits around, waiting for things to happen.
Ask him “Do you ever wonder what it’s all about? I mean life, the universe, and everything?” And he’ll reply, “Um, well… no, not really.” Then he’ll reach for the beer pretzels.
For this poor guy, facts are facts. Period. And please pass the onion dip. He sees no web, no great ethereal connection between things. Metaphors and analogies? There are antibiotics you can take for that.
Then you’ve got the “speculator.” And this is who you want to be. Because it’s the speculator that’s preoccupied with combinations, connections, and details. That’s an ideal personality for an “idea person”… so naturally, if this describes you, you’re in luck.
Why? Because, in large part, that’s what “idea-making” ends up being — the creative connection of found elements. New ways to combine old things. And this, too, is what James W. Young’s method will help you do. As Young warns us, it’s nothing new. Rather it’s instinctive. So, like all sensible things, this method I’m about to describe sounds almost primal and obvious.
Step One: Gather your raw material.
Yes… very obvious, you’ll say. Yet, it’s a common misconception that Big Ideas are born within. However, we’re sensory creatures. All our best ideas start on the outside. Case in point: when someone has writer’s block — an all-too-common malady — what’s the surefire cure? To go out and read something. Or listen. Or talk to someone on the “inside” of whatever you’re writing about.
The bottom line is to pack in new information from any relevant source you can find.
For instance, I used to read the front page of the Wall Street Journal every morning. I had to stop, because invariably I’d lose the next half hour desperately scribbling out a new idea for a short story or “perfect screenplay” that I just didn’t have time to write.
So… you find yourself short on brilliance? Then go out and get yourself some. Load up on insights relevant to the breakthrough you’re hoping to produce. As many books and clippings and observations as you can carry.
Of course, you need to start with raw material that’s closest to the problem you’re trying to solve. Just as I described above. But then you also need what Young calls “general” information. And this is harder to come by, because it requires a lifetime habit of insatiable curiosity — a mark, by the way, of every brilliant copywriter I know.
Read books endlessly, like the smoker who lights his next cigarette with the last one. Get into conversations with unfamiliar people. Ask questions and then shut up and listen. Don’t limit the subject matter. Just get interested in life. Or give up writing copy, because it probably isn’t the career for you.
Step Two: Study the puzzle.
If you’ve piled up enough raw material, you’ve got a mound. A mess. A mountain that needs to be conquered. Ideally, you’re already starting to gather notes from your resources while you’re still in the first stage. Like a packrat, you’re jotting things down. On napkins. On your hand. On the back of your tie.
Here’s an even better option: Young suggests, as I have countless times, index cards. They still work best, even in the wonderful world of word processing.
Whatever it is, you need to know that your system of note-taking will (a) be endlessly expandable and (b) easily sorted later, after you get that feeling you’ve gathered all the facts you need (which happens about the time the resources start repeating themselves).
Now you need another stack of blank index cards or an empty notebook where you can start taking notes on your notes. Sift through them. Spread them out on the floor. Organize them. And drop in cards filled with connecting ideas where they come. You’ll be shocked, if you do this right, how things start to gel together.
This, by the way, is the part of the process where you’re unlikely to hear the doorbell ringing and where a phone call from your best friend feels like an act of violence.
But be warned. To get the most out of this stage, you have to do it until you drop. Or at least, until the point you feel like you’ve seen each and every factoid and insight you’ve gathered a half-dozen times or more.
Step Three: Step back.
It’s in this phase where you get to comb your hair, brush your teeth, and go somewhere else.
Just get out of the office or the house and do something other than what you were doing. Distract yourself, preferably with something that will stir up your imagination or emotions in some other way.
Because it’s in this stage that you get to digest what you’ve taken in. As you take your conscious mind elsewhere, your unconscious mind gurgles with gastric juices (so to speak), churning through the details.
Step Four: Have the idea.
I’d like to say this is the easy part.
You’ve done all the tedious preliminary work.
Now you get the reward — the idea appears. Pop. Just like that. One minute you didn’t know what to say or do. And the next, you’ve got a 150 watt halogen hovering over your head.
Isn’t that nice?
If you’ve ever struggled with a problem before bed and woke up with the answer… if you’ve ever suddenly had a flash of brilliance while strolling, driving, or in the shower… this is what’s happening.
However, where you go from here is anything but easy.
Typically, the idea will first arrive — if you did everything else right — when you least expect it. For instance, it’s just not easy to find something to write with in the shower. Worse, even if you find a way to scribble out your stream of genius with soap on the bathroom mirror, you’ll quickly realize that just having the idea — even jotting it down — isn’t the end of your efforts.
Step Five: Wake up.
You’ll feel great — even inspired — when that idea first shows up. But we all know that it’s not long after the cork pops when champagne starts to lose its fizz.
See, your new idea doesn’t just need to be captured. It needs to be tamed. Polished. Beaten into submission or whatever other metaphor floats your dinghy. And — here’s the really hard-to-swallow fact — this is where your skills, alas, will come into play.
Because it’s here, in the execution rather than the mere inspiration, where you’re going to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. Think of it this way.
Some cave guy (or gal) once had an idea for a thing called a ‘wheel.’ We must remember to send him (or her) some flowers. But while we’re at it, let’s not forget to thank the fella (for it was one, Charles Goodyear) who thought up vulcanized rubber in 1844… or Robert Thomson who came up with the first inflatable tire in 1845… and John Dunlop, who re-invented it for his son’s tricycle in 1847.
Radials and white walls. All-season treads. Axles and four-wheel drive. They all took a great idea and made it greater… by working it over, massaging it, pushing forward and making mistakes, and plenty more. It was the sweat equity that made the real difference.
Here’s the good news: as you polish and refine, you’ll also discover more ideas. All worth re-working too. Your pool of genius will expand. And pretty soon, you’re not just the guy (or gal) who had that one great idea a long time ago… you’re the one who has lots of great ideas. And even better, you’ll have a reputation as one of the rare few who sees those ideas through.
And isn’t that who you wanted to be all along?