Ep 12 - How To Have Ideas
Ricky Richards Represents:
A Longterm Strategy For Having More Origonal Ideas.
In this episode I talk about a long term strategy that people can embrace to become better at having more creative ideas innately. I also touch on how to best position yourself to bring these ideas to life in a world where good ideas are abundant.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST
A longterm strategy for having more original ideas and getting them out in the world?
To answer this question fully, I feel we need to break it down into separate parts. So lets start with the word, ‘original’. What is original? Most of us will have experienced seeing a concept we like, and saying, I like that idea; it’s unique or original. There’s nothing wrong with this, but upon deeper inspection, I find this to be questionable for the reasons below.
When we’re born, we have little to no understanding of the world other than our primitive survival instincts to cry and suck nipples. By the time we’re adults, we know lots of things, and everything we’ve acquired is in one way or another a result of our senses being stimulated, be that through our environment, what we see, what people tell us etc. As we learn increasing amounts of knowledge, we become more capable of identifying connections and applying them in interesting ways, you might say ‘in original ways’ but it’s important to point out that this originality, is always inside the context of an individuals personal perspective and understanding.
Even seemingly incredible eureka ideas, like the discovery of gravity for example, were discovered because Sir Isaac Newton understood something about the universe, when the apple supposedly landed on his head. This is what ultimately enabled him to combine two pre existing concepts and come up with something new.
Our ability to attribute levels of originality to ideas, tends to be based on unlikelihood that a combination could come together and form tangible value. For the most part, people still value uniqueness that encompasses utility as apposed to uniqueness for the sake of it. A sandwich filled with toenail clippings and snakeskin is an ‘original’ idea, but it serves no reason for being, it’s just a superfluous form of sensationalist expression.
This kind of uniqueness is easy to create, but the real question is: how do we increase our chances of creating new ideas that have utility? The easiest way to explain this is to look at how best to not achieve it and to therefore seek the opposite. The first question to ask is, what are ideas? And what do they make up? I think most would agree, that when describing an amalgamation of ideas, what we’re describing is ‘culture.’ With the most prevalent ideas being referred to as ‘popular culture’. When you Google the definition of popular culture, it offers up a stark explanation:
‘Culture based on the tastes of ordinary people rather than an educated elite.’
Now if we take this to be true, then the word we must focus in on, is ‘ordinary’ which is contrary to the desired outcome we seek to achieve when trying to seek originality. People who see original ideas, may refer to them as extraordinary or novel, but never ‘ordinary’.
Popular culture then, refers to the things that ‘ordinary people’ consider to be worthy of their attention. These cultural contributions are just one of several reference points that the greatest number of people possess and are therefore not the best points of reference to have, if you’re seeking originality. To explain what I mean by this, let me put this into a visual context.
Let’s imagine that your brain is a container, and every time you consume something; you get a little ball in your brain containing that reference. If you consume things that many other people consume, then your brain contains a reference ball that many other brains worldwide also contain. Whereas, if you consume things that fewer people consume, you’re filling your brain with inputs that fewer people also have.
Now lets imagine that each of us simultaneously decided to use the balls in our brains in a draw much like the lottery, with the goal of creating a unique idea. The winner would more likely be an individual who is able to combine the most number of unique inputs. In this scenario, the people who have the highest chance of winning, are those individuals who don’t consume popular culture.
The irony of this situation is that those who are able to combine unique insights to create something of utility to the world, then normally get mass market attention, and their seemly unique idea quickly becomes a staple concept.
In short, I believe the best way to have original ideas, is to seek out information that either other people do not know about, or that they don’t have access to based on their circumstances. Despite the definition of popular culture referring to those outside the realm of influence as 'the elite'. This is a conscious decision that can be embraced by anyone who is willing to buy into the long-term perspective of feeding their mind with niche, sub cultural references.
Another interesting point to make is that you also need to consider the environment from which you operate in. The explanation I have just disclosed is a good basic structure for overall idea acquisition, but if you wish to stand out among your peers, you must apply the same thinking on a macro level. If you’re part of an industry that already values the deeper qualities of culture, then you must look to other sources for ways to fill your mind, be that seeking insights from different fields or a different country culture all together. The next logical question to ask then, is if this is the case, then what information should you be paying attention to? The most used argument for being an advocate of popular culture, is that it’s good, and that without it, everything else is rubbish. But is this really true?
After working in advertising for years of my life, it’s still the case that positive word of mouth is still the best way to sell. To ignore sources of input that are feasibly enjoyable or entertaining that many people are talking about is arguably the hardest inputs to resist, but possible to do, if you become conscious of your consumerism.
This behaviour of following others recommendations purely on the basis that other people are telling you it’s good, is a cognitive bias known as the ‘bandwagon effect’, which is defined as the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.
The alternative of which is to make conscious, informed and strategic choices over what you choose to consume. And while this doesn’t sound like much fun when I put it like this, I would encourage you to give it a try. There’s no hard and fast rule to suggest that you must go cold turkey, and a conscious effort to discover slightly more elusive inputs is still a great way to increase the likelihood of you having better ideas.
For those who want to embrace this thinking more seriously however, my best tip is embrace curiosity. Most popular culture is the sensory equivalent of a fruit machine, it’s an amalgamation of flashing lights, loud noises, big buttons and easy to understand ideas. Seeking unique inputs requires a level of intrigue that allows you to not be deterred by the seeming lack of interest on first appearances.
I assure you that even the most notoriously dull fields, like stamp collecting, bird watching or train spotting, are probably somewhat fascinating if only you dig below the superficial beliefs surrounding them. There are countless other sources of input, many of which you will undoubtedly enjoy, if only you give them a chance.
To name some of my own most recent interests such as cyber punk, philosophy, bikram yoga, manga, artificial intelligence and physics among many others. These are all subjects that I would never have considered learning about just 5 years ago, but all came about because I suspended judgement until I gave them a go. I now enjoy the fact that I know things the general populous doesn’t know or get excited about. When I happen to meet an individual who shares a common interest, our connections are much stronger and our conversations more interesting when compared to those who I speak to about generic subjects, like football for example.
Supposing you’re strong enough to overcome these cultural hurdles. The next problem you’re likely to face is the abundance of other things you could be interested in. While popular culture seems diverse, it really is quite narrow, and embracing sub cultures can take you down any number of rabbit holes. My advice here is to look for subjects that have some correlation to your specialist fields of knowledge, because it will increase the likelihood, that what you learn will become useful in every day life, and hence, become more likely to be remembered and useful to you long term.
It’s my assumption, that if randomly given the tests we were given in school, I suspect most people, myself included, would do worst today, than when we took them at school, this is because what we learnt is not always used, and is therefore easily forgotten.
In the book, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’, by Steven Johnson, he refers to the adjacent possible, which is his way of describing how innovations tend to branch out in incremental tangents from the furthest innovations to date. Similarly, I believe that the best information to consume is that which has the adjacent likelihood of surfacing. i.e, close enough to your current expertise that it’s likely to be useful, but far enough away that it’s likely to create new combinations. As a designer, I might study cinematography for example, because it’s different enough that I’m likely to find out something new, but close enough to the field of creativity that my newfound knowledge is likely to be applicable in every day life.
I should take a moment to point out, that I do believe that connections formed between completely disparate subjects do arguably result in the most unique insights. Such as an apple falling off a tree and astrology in the case of Sir Isaac Newton. But they also occur far more rarely, and hence, I feel it makes more sense to focus on creating a diverse but connected knowledge base for the purposes of improving ones chances of generating unique ideas, rather than a trove of general knowledge that has few opportunities to surface in practical application.
To sum up, by becoming incredibly well versed in an area of study that greatly interests you, you increasingly separate yourself from the general populous and continue to build momentum as a key person of influence. This doesn’t make you more creative in itself, but it does help when you come to make your ideas a reality. By separating yourself from the crowd, you’re more likely to attract attention, bringing you better opportunities and ultimately unlocking the positive effects of the bandwagon effect, as people seek your expertise based on your prior successes.
To expand on this point…It is said that quality always rises to the top, but this is not always the case. The best-designed magazines are read by only a few thousand people when compared to mass-market magazines, some of the funniest comedians perform to rooms of 30 when compared to the sell out tours of more family friendly comedians. And even the most thought provoking and well-executed films are often only seen at festivals because they lack the funding and mass-market appeal of blockbuster movies.
The conclusion for many people therefore, especially those in the creative fields, is there will come a time when you have to ask yourself whether you value your creative integrity, over that of mass market success. For a tiny minority of people, they are able to maintain sub culture status, while achieving mainstream success, but these people are the exceptions, not the rule. So what separates these individuals?
Lets take authors for example, some, globally renowned authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin are masters of taking esoteric ideas, and converting them into easily digestible chunks that the mass market can embrace and understand. Titles such as ‘Outliers’ and ‘Purple Cow’ use intentionally simplified and dumbed down language, which affords them the opportunity to have mass-market success.
Another way of approaching this is to consciously leverage the momentum of popular culture, simply for the means of bringing more attention to your work. When this is done well I refer to this technique as ‘pronto projects’ in which smart people hypothetically ride the wave of popular culture. A recent example would be how Sagmiester and Walsh, (a renowned design studio from new york) recently released a website containing products like pin badges and T-shirts mocking the US presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
They could have released a similar website at any time, but by leveraging the wave of popular culture, they are able to cash in on mass-market attention, while still maintaining their creative integrity. For some creatives however, even using the mass market for all that it’s worth, seems like too much of a sell out move. And it’s these people who must be prepared to build a small but loyal audience if they wish to have any chance of financially sustaining themselves and having their ideas seen. You can be the master of ideas, but if you lack the funds to execute and have no means of distributing your ideas, then you’ll undoubtedly get lost in the crowd. And with populations growing year on year, this will only become more prevalent as time goes on.Whatever path you ultimately decided to take, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that having unique inputs aids you in having original output.
The final thing I want to touch on is language. When we talk about world changing ideas, most people think of electricity or the Internet, but for all intensive purposes, language is what has made the world around us possible. Words have the amazing power of encapsulating complex meaning into simple forms. Ideas come into being because we’re able to pass on information, which then inspires the mind to create new and exciting ideas. Despite this, most of us only ever use a tiny fraction of respective languages.
I’m sure many will have experienced times when they attempt to speak a different language and struggle to find the words that they readily poses in their native language. Which is a perfect demonstration of how our lack of ability to articulate, can reduce our capacity to convey even the simplest of ideas. While I believe it’s definitely a hard undertaking to master other languages. I feel it’s not a big ask to consciously expand upon our native language.
By consciously expanding our vocabulary past the point of simple conversation, we’re feeding our minds with complex ideas that can be repurposed to both have more original ideas, but also to understand and intake more information, as well as to describe in greater detail what we want to achieve. Attempting to become a language connoisseur therefore is another noble pursuit if you wish to open yourself up to the prospect of better and more original ideas.
I hope this has gone someway to open your mind to some of the deeper aspects of idea acquisition. Some things in life are a marathon, not a sprint, and while there are ways to generate ideas fast and without prior training, it’s possible to somewhat make being exceptionally creative, an innate trait by thinking long term and making some positive conscious decisions.
I’ll end my rant today, by saying that by no means do I consider myself to be all wise on the subject of idea acquisition, I can only talk from my own experience, teaching and understanding, so I look forward to hearing from anyone who has anything to add to this thought experiment. Also, for anyone who is interested in the more practical aspects of idea generating, I hopefully look forward to seeing you in a workshop soon, you can email me personally at email@example.com if you’d be interested in attending one.
For now, best of luck with all of your creative endeavours wherever you are in the world. And don’t forget that ideas are good, but made ideas are better.