I have a thing for idea generation. I think there are good ideas and there are terrible ideas and the difference is important. Good ideas enjoy certain natural advantages in the market. I have written about all these things before here.
In that tradition, in today’s essay, I’m again looking into where good ideas come from. This time I’m rereading Stephen King’s On writing (it’s a must-read if you haven’t) and King offers tons of insights into where good ideas come from. Two particular insights early in the book stand out.
The first one is slack — which basically means having time to do nothing in particular. A lack of work. Being able to spend quiet time doing nothing. Although King doesn’t call it slack, he simply means that good thinking happens when you are not trying too hard to think better.
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
This is a widely held view about good thinking. Many people claim that they have their best ideas when in the shower or taking a random walk or chatting with their spouse or spending quiet time. The main point is: ideas come when you are not actively chasing after them. Our minds need time to make connections between distinct facts and unrelated ideas. It can do its job the best when you are not hounding it down with active pressure. You allow time to germinate ideas.
Today, we live in an extremely busy world. We’re always doing something. Leisure is viewed as a waste of time. Slacking has a negative connotation. We are always on. It makes coming up with new ideas very difficult.
All we do, consequently, is regurgitate the old ideas. Many people want to say that the nature of our world is one of the reasons we don’t see a lot of original ground-breaking work these days.
Successful people take time off for thinking. Many people have rituals like thinking week — a dedicated period of time to study and think. Others maintain rituals and routines to decompress and find quiet time in their days and weeks.
Slow down. Take time to sit silent and meditate. When you slow down, you see things more clearly. It allows your brain to rest and synthesize.
The world you see around you is a result of the imagination of brilliant minds. Things happen in our minds first and then come into reality. Books, companies, innovations, and everything around us are a direct outcome of the imagination of powerful minds.
You encounter a problem, think about it, and eventually imagine a solution that eventually turns into an invention, a company, or a movement. The same is true for the authors. Here is King on how he came up with his first original idea:
“On the day this particular idea—the first really good one—came sailing at me, my mother remarked that she needed six more books of stamps to get a lamp she wanted to give her sister Molly for Christmas, and she didn’t think she would make it in time. “I guess it will have to be her birthday, instead,” she said. “These cussed things always look like a lot until you stick them in a book.” Then she crossed her eyes and ran her tongue out at me. When she did, I saw her tongue was S&H green. I thought how nice it would be if you could make those damned stamps in your basement, and in that instant a story called “Happy Stamps” was born. The concept of counterfeiting Green Stamps and the sight of my monther’s green tongue created it in an instant.”
This event happened when King was 15/16 years old kid. At this time, he was mostly imitating his favorite authors, books he was reading, and cinemas he was watching. He attempted a couple of original pieces but nothing significant yet. “Happy Stamps” was, per King, his first meaningful original work.
If you read On Writing, King had a difficult childhood. Raised by a single mother who was moving from one place to another all the time and doing menial jobs to feed her two boys, it was a tough life. They regularly struggled to pay the bills and maintain a decent life. When he was young, King had to deal with various medical conditions so severe that for most of the first grade, he was “either in bed or housebound”. This was when King developed his love for writing. He would spend his time writing and inventing stories. In my reading, the reality was so tough for him that he had to imagine a better reality. In many ways, it was a coping mechanism for King. For instance, Happy Stamps is clearly an attempt by King to imagine a better reality for them.
Imagination leads to the creation of new worlds. Be it in the form of fiction or companies. Paul Graham in his excellent essay “what we look for in founders” writes imagination is one of the most important attributes of exceptional founders. He writes:
“Intelligence does matter a lot of course. It seems like the type that matters most is imagination. It's not so important to be able to solve predefined problems quickly as to be able to come up with surprising new ideas. In the startup world, most good ideas seem bad initially. If they were obviously good, someone would already be doing them. So you need the kind of intelligence that produces ideas with just the right level of craziness.”
The conditions for imagination also tie it back to our earlier discussion about slack and taking quiet time. Imagination requires empty space in your life. If you are always engaged and always doing something, it is hard to find time to imagine a different reality.
It equally applies to problem-solving. In order to find effective solutions, you need thinking time. If you are trying to force generate solutions to your problems, you are likely to generate ineffective ones.
We’ve somehow come to adopt the view that we’re only productive when we are in the midst of some action. Meetings are a direct outcome of this kind of thinking. You have to demonstrate busyness. It has become a hallmark of productivity. But groundbreaking ideas can’t happen when you allow yourself little time to think. You need space in your life to think, analyze, and synthesize. Magic often happens in those empty moments when you’re not forcing yourself to produce something grand.