Part of the Longform blogchain.
A topic of interest to me lately has been the identification and subsequent analysis of the differences between two types of individuals, namely:
Type A: Individuals who are well-read and/or observant enough to consider certain ideas and topics to be interesting, but continue to primarily be a consumer of ideas; and
Type B: Those individuals who begin to ‘start having ideas’, to the extent that they develop sufficiently unique ideas more frequently than average.
Before diving any deeper, it is worthwhile clarifying what these personas, Type B in particular, actually mean and the objective of this essay. The ideas generated by this individual do not necessarily have to be good but they can’t be off-the-cuff ideas which spring to mind in a particular situation.
I am defining a ‘sufficiently unique idea’ as being a thought process which has taken an initial idea through multiple iterations of development. This absolutely does not need to be something that requires formalised research, this can certainly be the result of downtime or the output of a conversation.
What is the difference between these two types of individuals? This post seeks to move past the idea of asking a Type A individual “why don’t you do more” and seeks to identify how Type B is successful in generating ideas. For this analysis to occur, the creative framework must first be identified—what does it mean to develop an idea?
The idea generation process
In further clarifying this notion, it is worth outlining what a typical idea generation process looks like. The initial framework for such a creative process comes from an advertising executive named James Webb Young, who published a short guide for producing ideas in 1940 titled A Technique for Producing Ideas.
Young believes that idea production is a process, similar to the production of cars, — that follows a technique which can be learned and controlled. Young goes on to explain his belief that that the key to creativity and innovation comes through the new combination of older elements, which depends largely on the ability to see relationships:
“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas”
The process of idea generation is outlined by Young as follows:
- Gather new material
- Work thoroughly over the materials on your mind
- Step away from the problem
- Let your idea return to you
- Shape and develop your idea based on feedback
Identification and analysis
Now we understand the basic tenets of what it means to create an idea. We understand the step-by-step process at some level but only on the basis of how an idea is created. However, I do not believe this process solely capable of explaining why Type B thinkers produce ideas. What are the cognitive differences between the two types?
To identify and discuss these differences at an appropriate level of depth, I believe it is useful to map the concept of systems analysis, specifically the sub-topic of ‘leverage points’.
Systems analysis is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the process of studying a procedure or business in order to identify its goals and purposes and create systems and procedures that will achieve them in an efficient way”.
The concept of ‘leverage points’ is synonymous with the idea of single points of power — whether that be a single hero in an action movie or a miracle cure for disease. Change these points and you change the system in an enormous way.
This type of systems thinking provides a highly applicable toolkit which allows us to view and disassemble the idea generation process, identifying what areas within this ‘system’ are able to be shifted in small ways to produce large results.
“By mapping this type of conceptual framework to the creative process, we can systematically break down where opportunities lie in creating more ideas of our own.”
This is about recognising what it is that Type B thinkers more successfully than those classified as Type A.
The leverage points below are listed in order from least effective to most effective. Note that the concept of these points is not a concrete law, this is only a mental model which allows us to map reality as accurately as possible to a system of cognitive behaviour.
9. Constants, parameters and numbers
Number of unique opportunities
To create more ideas, you must first be exposed to more situations which will provide the basis for creation. Increase the number of books, articles, movies, music, people and experiences you interact with on a daily basis. Relatedly, increase the number of things you create and skills you are proficient at. Casting your opportunity net wider increases your exposure to the world, the perfect place for an idea to blossom and an excellent starting point for further idea development.
Number and variety of people you converse with
Each individual you come in contact with is an opportunity to glean unique and valuable information from. Having discussions with people from different cultures, ideologies, experiences, etc. allows you to view the same information in a different way, this is vitally important to developing ideas and solutions.
8. Buffer sizes, relative to their flows
Depth of research
Reaching a deeper level of understanding in any given field, you increase the ways in which you are able to approach any given situation. Arming yourself with a vast knowledge of any particular situation or topic gives you a better chance of coming up with the correct solution to a given problem because as your network of understanding grows, you increase the likelihood of generating a meaningful idea…essentially increasing your ‘idea rate’:
Idea Rate = Number of Ideas / Unit of Time
Number of Ideas = (Ideas / Opportunity) * (Number of Opportunities)
7. Length of delays, relative to rate of system changes
Reduce cognitive delay
Another way to become a better producer of ideas is to reduce the cognitive delay between the situation which produces an interesting thought and the time it takes to develop this thought into an idea. This will tie in with other leverage points but making it as easy as possible to spend time thinking about an idea increases the chance of multiple iterations of development occurring on any given thought.
“With the same number of ideas per opportunity per unit of time, reducing the delay between cognitive processing means you are able to develop more thoughts in a given time period…thus increasing the likelihood of a successful or good idea.”
Let’s illustrate how reducing your processing time results in the production of more ideas:
Number of Opportunities [Hourly] = 8
Ideas/Opportunity = 20% = 0.2
Good Ideas/Idea = Success Rate = 10% = 0.1
Given that these rates stay the same, how many good ideas can be produced for three different rates of development over 100 hours of focused work?
|Development Time||Good Ideas/Hour||Number of Good Ideas|
Model the process
Take the time to model the process of a particular development period. Any time you are solving a similar problem through a similar process, you can use a template of sorts to reduce the delay between insight and iteration. Repeatable steps should always be documented and systematised wherever possible.
However, be sure not to impose a notion of how something ought to be done just because you have completed a similar process previously. Be open-minded initially and only repeat a process when you are certain it is the best/most applicable way toward a solution.
6. Strength of negative feedback loops
Test multiple methods of idea implementation
By testing a number of different channels whereby you are able to validate an idea, you develop the ability to eliminate the channels/methods which present the least useful feedback. Eliminating these opportunities means less friction surrounding the idea generation process.
Codify more information from negative feedback
By engaging in more conversation about your ideas, you develop a better grasp of why and when you and others receive negative feedback about particular topics or ideas. For instance, if you hear somebody telling a story with a specific form of bad storytelling, this might teach you about the right way to tell stories. Take the time to codify/record these types of occurrences, they are valuable tools for future discussion and thought.
5. Gain around positive feedback loops
Find a receptive audience
This is about finding an intellectual community or receptive audience to have conversations with about your ideas. This also generates new ideas just through the positive feedback mechanism, especially if you are able to work through explanations successfully in these conversations. Remember that idea quality is subjective, reality is the final arbiter — finding ways to test and implement ideas to others will help with this process.
Start by developing ideas from activities you enjoy
Pay particular attention to the types of activities you enjoy. In having fun you are more likely to think about a particular activity and thus more likely to generate ideas about it.
Beware that you must actively think about the activity you engage with — watching a movie for the first time you may have been so immersed you missed many crucial details, which contain potential ideas and concepts to expand on. Be vigilant of your cognitive state during these activities if your goal is to derive ideas.
4. Structure of information flows
Record every idea you have
Carry around a notebook and write down whatever thought and ideas you have with people. Thinking of ideas is a skill. You are adding feedback here that previously was not part of the system.
3. The rules of the system
Increase your conceptual degrees of freedom
Don’t confine yourself to thinking about a topic in a thought pattern that already exists. Be prepared to implement mental models including first-principles thinking and reasoning by analogy in order to break through potential idea boundaries.
2. Goals of the system
Develop an inquisitive mindset
Work on developing a framework from which you’re able to view future experiences and information you encounter. How can you learn from all of your experiences? By standardising the way in which you organise and execute on information, you are able to refine your perspective/lens.
What information surprised you? Why did it surprise you? Would this information surprise others? Are there blind spots in the current mode of thinking? Have you encountered similar types of problems in other fields of knowledge? How did those fields produce a solution?
“Your goal from interactions/opportunities is not necessarily to come up with an idea but it is about viewing information in a way that facilitates innovation.”
1. The system’s underlying mindset or paradigm
Practice working on more ideas
Become more used to the idea of ‘taking a stance’ on certain problems — even without sharing or discussing any results (ideally you would but still, this is an independently important factor), this is a mindset shift that reduces modest epistemology. This is the notion that you hold back upon your own beliefs, which may contradict those of the ‘experts’, because you don’t feel that you’re adequately qualified to come up with an argument, idea or even solution to certain problems.
This ties in to the idea that it is possible for you to produce a synthesis of contrarian idea. By believing that your ideas (or even potential ideas in the future) have merit, you incentivise creativity for yourself — you have a chance to come up with an important discovery. By determining why you want to work on an idea, you will increase your ‘execution rate’.
Note that these action points are not necessarily step-by-step instructions for transitioning from being a Type A thinker to a Type B thinker, rather they are musings on what types of changes an individual should consider making in order to become more proficient at the idea generation process.
Thinking about ideas stems from coming up with problems and solutions for day-to-day life. Coming up with them and having good sources for them is an important part of becoming a better thinker.
Finally, have confidence in your ability to think about and solve meaningful things. Trust the process, give yourself the time and energy needed to expand on potential solutions and never criticise yourself for attempting an idea — you are training yourself to become better, these are mental repetitions which will lead to mastery.