How to Create Ideas: 11 Proven Lessons from Idea Generators

Creating ideas is essential to thrive in this fast-changing world. It puts you ahead of the pack. The problem is: how do we create ideas? The New Yorker has an excellent article about it entitled In the Air. I highly recommend you to read it if you haven’t done so. It’s an enjoyable read, and it sheds light on how people create genuine ideas.

Sky - the limit of idea creation The article talks about a company called Intellectual Ventures which aim to generate new ideas, patent them, and license the patents to other companies. Unlike other companies that work based on existing ideas, this company works to create ideas. And how is the result? Each year the company files five hundred patents. That’s more than one patent a day!

The conclusion of the article is that big ideas are not rare. It’s just we don’t know how to find them. If we do, we will never experience scarcity of ideas. In fact, there will be so many ideas that we will have hard time choosing and prioritizing them.

There are a lot of lessons in the article that can be applied at individual level. Here I try to extract them along with relevant quotes from the article. By applying these lessons you are on your way to becoming a productive idea generator:

1. Look hard for ideas

People weren’t finding dinosaur bones, and they assumed that it was because they were rare. But””and almost everything that Myhrvold has been up to during the past half decade follows from this fact””it was our fault. We didn’t look hard enough.

This lesson resonates with me. I do look for ideas, but I don’t look hard enough. It’s easy to expect big ideas to come with only moderate effort, but that is unlikely to happen.

2. Ask challenging questions

One rainy day last November, Myhrvold held an “invention session,” as he calls such meetings, on the technology of self-assembly. What if it was possible to break a complex piece of machinery into a thousand pieces and then, at some predetermined moment, have the machine put itself back together again?

Self-assembly is a challenging problem. Personally I don’t have the slightest clue of how it could be done. But such challenging problems are where big ideas reside.

I think this point goes hand in hand with lesson #1: we must look hard for ideas and one way to do so is by asking challenging questions.

3. Find partners

‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ … ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’

You will generate much more ideas when you brainstorm with other people than when you are alone. It increases the number of ideas exponentially. Of course, it’s important to brainstorm with the right people (see lesson #10).

4. Do your homework

“Nathan sent over a hundred scientific papers beforehand,” Gates said of the last such meeting. “The amount of reading was huge. But it was fantastic.”

I’ve learned about the importance of preparation before, but I underestimated the amount of preparation required to create big ideas. Bill Gates was sent over a hundred scientific papers just for one meeting. That’s a whole new level of preparation! This is also an application of looking hard for ideas (lesson #1).

5. Be observant

How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Wood looked at just one fact overlooked by many other people and that fact led him to a brilliant idea. Similarly, we should always be observant. Things that look trivial on the surface may actually contain the seed of big ideas.

6. Expect ideas anytime

“It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

Even the most unexpected moments can give us big ideas if we are attentive enough to recognize them. So open your eyes in the unlikely moments as well.

7. Know the giants

This phenomenon of simultaneous discovery””what science historians call “multiples”””turns out to be extremely common… the sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.

You must familiarize yourself with the current intellectual climate so that you are well-positioned to invent the ‘inevitable’ new ideas. This is why doing your homework (lesson #4) is essential.

As Newton said, you should “stand on the shoulders of giants”. You’d better know the giants well so that you can stand on their shoulders.

8. Be flexible

“There really aren’t any rules,” he told everyone. “We may start out talking about refined plastics and end up talking about shoes, and that’s O.K.”

Ideas often come from unexpected directions, so it’s important to be flexible enough to change course as necessary. If we insist on taking the direction we want, we may lose big opportunities that pass us by.

9. Have diverse interests

Nathan Myhrvold – one of the main characters in the article – is a person who has interests in as diverse fields as quantum cosmology, computer, paleontology, and cooking. No wonder he is so rich with ideas. Ideas from all those diverse fields can cross-pollinate to create something new. Besides, having diverse interests can help you look at things with fresh perspectives.

10. Meet people from different backgrounds

They had different backgrounds and temperaments and perspectives, and if you gave them something to think about that they did not ordinarily think about””like hurricanes, or jet engines, or metastatic cancer””you were guaranteed a fresh set of eyes.

While having diverse interests yourself is good, meeting people from different backgrounds is an even more effective way to increase the cross-pollination of ideas. As stated in lesson #3, the effect could be more than multiplicity.

11. Move on when ideas fail

If ideas are cheap, there is no point in making predictions, or worrying about failures, or obsessing, like Newton and Leibniz, or Bell and Gray, over who was first… If I.V.’s design wasn’t the best, Myhrvold had two thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine other ideas to pursue.

Why should you waste your time defending a failing idea when you still have so many other opportunities to pursue? The opportunity costs are significant here. Since ideas are not rare, the time you use to defend a failing idea can give better results if you just move on to other promising ideas.


These lessons have been proven by great inventors throughout the history. Applying them is not easy, of course, but the few people who apply them achieve great results.

What do you think?

This article is part of May 2008 theme: Mind

Photo by Computer Science Geek


  1. Another article with a description of radical innovation but not how exactly to make a specific breakthrough innovation yourself or understand it. Another black box description with a vague overview of the actors that might be involved and things that are best avoided. Like describing quantum mechanics (an innovation) by how you might start a university.

    Instead of treating innovation as an art it needs the mental effort to break down the system to cause and effect, to understand the science of innovation. That paradigm break is too much it seems. No one seems willing to conceive that innovation is complex but eventually deterministic.

    No idea is ever new, they are all constructed originally from laws of nature and eventually from analogous ideas that must pre-exist in the wild and be known to innovators. Therefore innovations are deterministic.

    The build looks like magic to those that have not knowingly constructed a targeted solution space from the component analogies using systems of thought. But then, even a medecine man will arrive at cures eventually if he shakes his rattle at enough concoctions.

    Keep shaking your rattle, the best you can say is it got us here I suppose.

  2. Waldo,
    It’s true that the article (In the Air) does not explains the process of innovation (or, to be more exact, invention) in details, but in my case it gives me a good feel of how it is done.
    The article also implies that inventions are deterministic since they are already “in the air” and “inevitable”.
    I agree with you that “a medicine man will arrive at cures eventually if he shakes his rattle at enough concoctions.”

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  5. Flexibility is highly required as to generating idea,but we must be very careful of mixing it up with our cure decision making at our areas of responsibility.

  6. I really dislike people who tend to lower the will to do something. To my mind they are just unhappy with whom they are and just to ”make sure” that nobody else really achieves something, they blame and blame and so on. There will be never such a thing as ”the manual to creating new ideas”.. but if there were such a thing (that works 100% perfectly) then we’d enter an era of super-mega-wealth. Right now here’s the only manual you’ll get except theese guidelines: hard will is all that’s necesarry to do whatever you want. Which is, in matter of fact, the #1 lesson here.

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