How to come up with ‘new’ ideas

First of all, forget new ideas. There aren’t any. See through toaster? Already exists. Dusting drones? Done. DIY bath milk? What are you even talking about Harriet, that’s not a thing. Oh alright then, it is.

Whatever you come up with, it won’t be new. New is just old + old smooshed into a ball. All the way back to, “I wonder what happens if I bang these rocks together?”

Think about it. See through toaster = toaster + window. Dusting drones = drone + your Nan. You can work out the bath milk one.

Point is, you’ve got nothing. I’ve got nothing. Nobody’s got anything – every thought has been thought before. The good news is, it doesn’t matter. Smashing old ideas together is a valid way to become Elon Musk/Cardi B/any other entrepreneur you can think of.

How is it done though?

Years ago, this dude J.W.Young wrote a thing about how to come up with fresh stuff. He was in advertising, so we can assume he had to produce every day. He didn’t believe in ‘new’ either.

Here’s his method:

  1. Collect ‘materials’. Both general materials and those specific to what you’re making.
  2. Digest the stuff. Here we have to be like a ‘curious octopus.’ Pick each thing up, feel it all over like a randy, sorry, curious octopus. Feel for the meaning of it. Bring two things together, see how they fit. You’re looking for relationships and ‘synergies’.
  3. This is my favourite part. ‘Make absolutely no effort of a direct nature.’ I read this as: take the afternoon off and go to the pub.
  4. The ‘A-ha’ moment. Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for. The ‘new’ idea hits us as we soak in a tub full of bath milk. There’s nowhere to write it down so we squirt it as best we can on the wall in Original Source Shower Gel.
  5. Idea meets reality. “The cold, grey dawn of the morning after.” We’ve all been there. See if the thing has legs. Tell people whose thoughts you value for feedback.

The good idea, according to Young, has ‘self-expanding qualities.’ If a friend thinks of things to add, you may be onto something. If they say nothing but nod politely as their eyes glaze gently over, you might want to drop it.

Coming back to his method years later, Young added that pursuing ‘general materials’ for the idea producer’s reservoir is best done as an end in itself, rather than whilst boning up for something.

With thanks to Maria Popova at Brain Pickings for an article about Young and a bunch of other stuff on creativity, productivity and how to be a human in the world.