- Ideas don’t come from watching television
- Ideas sometimes come from listening to a lecture
- Ideas often come while reading a book
- Good ideas come from bad ideas, but only if there are enough of them
- Ideas hate conference rooms, particularly conference rooms where there is a history of criticism, personal attacks or boredom
- Ideas occur when dissimilar universes collide
- Ideas often strive to meet expectations. If people expect them to appear, they do
- Ideas fear experts, but they adore beginner’s mind. A little awareness is a good thing
- Ideas come in spurts, until you get frightened. Willie Nelson wrote three of his biggest hits in one week
- Ideas come from trouble
- Ideas come from our ego, and they do their best when they’re generous and selfless
- Ideas come from nature
- Sometimes ideas come from fear (usually in movies) but often they come from confidence
- Useful ideas come from being awake, alert enough to actually notice
- Though sometimes ideas sneak in when we’re asleep and too numb to be afraid
- Ideas come out of the corner of the eye, or in the shower, when we’re not trying
- Mediocre ideas enjoy copying what happens to be working right this minute
- Bigger ideas leapfrog the mediocre ones
- Ideas don’t need a passport, and often cross borders (of all kinds) with impunity
- An idea must come from somewhere, because if it merely stays where it is and doesn’t join us here, it’s hidden. And hidden ideas don’t ship, have no influence, no intersection with the market. They die, alone.
When I was 24 I moved from Boston to L.A. in search of a record deal. Never got one, but Edgar Winter did record a song I wrote called, “Stranger to Love,” for a B horror movie called Netherworld. Those songwriting days taught me something important about new ideas, where they come from, when they surface, and how to relate to them.
Night after night I would go into my loft and bang away on my guitar, trying to coerce a song out of it. It would take me months to write each song. This method we might call How Not to Write Songs. I was going about it the wrong way, and I notice a lot of entrepreneurs and businesses doing the same thing. They create businesses without an idea, or without a strong idea (which is why you can’t understand what the hell they’re talking about when they describe it to you). They build form around the absence of an idea and call it a business.
Much smarter to build form around the substance of an idea.
Charlie Rose once asked Bruce Springsteen, “When do you write?” His reply: “When I have an idea.” As opposed to when he doesn’t have one. What a brilliant use of his time!
John Denver used to say (for you Millennials, he was RCA’s second-biggest record seller after Elvis) that, “the songs come when they’ve a mind to.” The idea for “Annie’s Song,” his biggest hit, came to him while he was on a chair lift during a day of skiing.
Springsteen and John Denver were both wise enough to know that you wait and watch for ideas, you don’t force them into being. Well, actually, you can hear instances where each of them did try to force it — and got lousy songs as a result.
Steve Jobs was asked years ago about how he planned to compete with the Wintel monopoly. He said, “I’m going to wait for the next big thing.” He didn’t say “I’m going to personally create the next big thing.” Neither iTunes nor the iPod was his idea. The iTunes idea came from a small company called SoundJam MP, and the genesis of the iPod was a design inside the head of Tony Fadell, a tech consultant who went to work for Apple. Steve Jobs’s brilliance was in keeping his eyes open for the ideas, recognizing the moment, connecting the dots, and “creating” iTunes and iPod as a system that worked together, adding Jonathan Ive’s designs, and marketing it all brilliantly. He wasn’t sitting at his desk banging his head against the wall trying to force an idea out of the universe.
In fact, to the extent that you are punishing yourself for the lack of an idea, or torturing yourself to come up with one, you may very well miss the idea that’s right under your nose, waiting to be acknowledged.
There are two simple rules I have learned about ideation: Look and wait.
Look. For years my company struggled to come up with the right slogan for our AIDS Rides. “Challenge yourself and you will grow.” Yuck. “The adventure of a lifetime.” Yawn. The more frustrated we got, the more the answer eluded us. Then one day we said to ourselves, “These events are impossible. You have to ride for grueling distances. You have to sleep in a tent and raise huge amounts of money from your friends. Most people look at them and think, ‘Impossible.’” Having admitted the truth, we stared at that word “impossible” for about an hour. And we noticed two words inside there. “I’m” and “possible.” “I’mpossible.” Our new slogan. It had been staring us in the face for four years. We just weren’t looking.
And as for waiting…This is tragic but instructive. In 1999 someone very close to me committed suicide. My grief and aching sadness wanted expression, and they found it in music. Ideas for songs about the tragedy started coming to me in rapid succession. On long walks. In the car. Without me asking for them. They were asking for me. In about eight weeks I wrote 13 songs, each of them based on an idea, and each of them better than most anything I had forced while banging away on my guitar in my loft years earlier. And they became my first album.
On top of that, an idea came for a suicide prevention event — called, “Out of the Darkness” — that has now raised millions for the cause. That idea would never have come to us sitting in our conference room at Pallotta TeamWorks trying to force an event into being. It came from a confluence of tragedy and emotion and timing. And, as a result, it was authentic, not a contrivance.
The idea may not come when you want it to, but when it does, it will be right on time. And it will be true to who you really are.
So, my advice to you: Go get an ice cream. Go ride your bike, or whatever it is you like to do. Relax a little bit. You can’t create the next big idea at will anymore than you can make the love of your life walk into the room in the next half hour.
Look. And wait. And while you’re at it, have a little faith — in life, in God, in the universe, in whatever you believe in. The universe is pregnant with ideas. Your passion for them is enough. They don’t go where they’re not wanted. But ideas have lives of their own. They have their pride. And they don’t reveal themselves to the impatient or the distracted.
That song I wrote, “Stranger to Love” — it was actually a good song. For one reason. It started with an idea.