by Brad Bollenbach

Shiny Wheel

Insist upon yourself. Be original.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Original ideas are like UFOs: They attract attention, the pilots are often assumed to be from another planet, and they usually have rounded corners.

An original idea is just a thought expressed in a way that no one has expressed it before. There is no such thing as an idea made from scratch, but there is plenty of room for using existing concepts as a foundation for creating new pathways through reality.

The value of an original idea is in its ability to allow us to experience things in a different way. Steve Pavlina’s idea of 30-day trials, for example, totally altered my path to personal growth. There are a much wider range of commitments I’m willing to make for a month than, say, forever. This technique has been such a catalyst for change in my own life that I even decided to create a website around it and document my adventures.

The chemical compound formed by a unique thought mixed with purposeful action is highly explosive. When you’re building to change the world, that’s the kind of energy you need.

There’s just one problem: How do you think what no man has thought before?

Always Be Reading

Like gourmet food, original ideas are the product of good ingredients. The more ideas you consume, the more you have to cook with.

I consider reading a top-level priority. It’s so important to me that if I have one hour left in my day and haven’t yet done any reading, I’ll choose a book over anything else, if possible. I commute with public transport and taxis, so I usually use that time for reading too.

The most important things to me for extracting useful ideas from what I read are:

  • Choose the best sources. Consciously choose the best content you can find on subject matter that interests you.
  • Take notes. I usually carry around a journal with me that’s small enough to fit in a handbag. When reading non-fiction, I jot down everything I want to retain. I haven’t yet tried this with fiction, but I’d imagine it could be useful for noting key events, character descriptions, and other plot cookies.
  • Do what you read, as you read it. Every good non-fiction book I read alters my external world in measurable ways. I prefer to walk the walk as soon as I start learning new ideas. I find it much easier to retain them this way.

Plug and Play

They say the key to generating cool ideas is to spot links between things that no one else sees. I use an even simpler formula:

  1. Pick two endpoints and connect them.
  2. Describe that relationship.

I do this all the time to connect the dots between software development and personal growth. It’s not that I have a keen eye for spotting relationships between two seemingly disparate ideas. It’s that I create the link and then try to figure out if it can make sense.

I’ve used this algorithm to unearth some interesting concepts. For example, it’s how I came up with the concept of beliefs as an API for personal growth.

Build a Better Model

Approach anxiety is a big problem for someone trying to practice talking to strangers. I’d done a fair amount of reading on this subject to learn to deal with it. The best answers I found involved focussing on “qualifying” a girl, instead of worrying about her being interested in you.

But I still found this model wasn’t enough. It made me think about talking to girls as a linear process: First you approach, then you open, then you qualify… I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted a model that would let me profit from authenticity.

The more I talked to people and the more I thought about what was going on, the more I saw ways in which I could mold the existing models into the shape I wanted. This is how I came up with social polarity. I felt this model better explained the instant attraction or instant revulsion you tend to experience when you approach strangers. It also suggests that authenticity is the best policy. And it requires no effort to implement. This new model was a perfect fit for me.

Because models are abstractions, they’re lossy. This makes them ripe territory to be remapped.

Create Hooks

Talking to strangers is a timeless concept. But “social skydiving” was a hook that stuck in people’s minds. Different words trigger different emotions. A new label gave it new life. Finding a distinct way to express an old idea can make it seem original all over again. Anyone who reads personal growth literature knows that sometimes you need to hear something said in the right way for it to really click.

There’s no magic potion I use to create catchy. I just spend a lot of time wrestling to express myself with words that people will remember.

Invert Your Beliefs

Here’s another little formula I use for idea generation:

  1. Take one of your existing beliefs or opinions.
  2. Completely reverse your position.
  3. Try to justify this point of view.

You can also apply this formula to public opinion. A good example of this is DHH’s recent post Fire the workaholics. It’s hard not to want to read that.

But this isn’t just a way to generate blog article ideas. The guys at 37signals have built an entire business around doing the opposite of what most small development shops do, including four-day workweeks, business credit cards for employees, even giving them personal expense accounts to fund their passions.

Sometimes the smaller your operation, the more you’ll have to flex your creative muscles to stay alive. The good news is that inspiration and originality needn’t cost a lot of money; they’re a natural byproduct of directed thinking and deliberate effort.

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  1. [...] Anyway, decide for yourself… [...]

  2. Raj says:

    “”Original ideas are like UFOs: They attract attention, the pilots are often assumed to be from another planet, and they usually have rounded corners.”"

    and the rest… great article and a great blog…

  3. Thanks Raj. Great to have you here.

  4. Prague says:

    Very nice article. I second the idea that reading is extremely important. Anything and everything. RSS helps, it’s easier to mark the important stuff and come back to it later.

  5. T. says:

    Great as usual, man. I especially like this one:

    Pick two endpoints and connect them.
    Describe that relationship.

    Describes my thought process (and by extension my blog) to a tee! Love it!

  6. kyle says:

    there is no such thing as an original idea…

    Ideas where not like UFOs but rather a chain. Ideas that pops up to your mind doesn’t mean it’s original because the thing you learned is where every ideas came from. So it means ideas were only passed on.

    If there’s a thing that is an original idea then that would be wisdom…

    I’m not cynical but just curious!

  7. josh says:

    i dont understand what “Pick two endpoints and connect them. Describe that relationship” means.

    is it that you pick two of your end goals and connect them or do you a goal and connect the start to the finish.

  8. @josh: pick any two ideas and try to connect them.

    For example, entrepreneurship has been connected to deep sea diving with an air tank on your back.

    Your goal as the diver is to get back to the surface, before the air in your air tank runs out. You can get more air in your air tank (via VC money), but this air comes at a cost as it pushes further away from the surface.

  9. huma says:

    great start, well described.

  10. Jodi says:

    Your writings make me wanna do GREAT things! Thanks for sharing :)


  11. bernadette de los santos says:

    i love reading your writings! thanks for sharing them!

  12. I totally agree about what you said about approach anxiety… how there’s way too much emphasis on “qualifying” people and trying to determine whether they’re “worthy” of talking to you. That’s a load of nonsense. There’s too much “doing” in the whole world of approaching, as according to the so-called pickup artists out there. We should act like Paul Rudd in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and do less! Really all it comes down to is self-confidence, I think. If you are confident in yourself and who you are as a person, you don’t need a bunch of fancy lines and qualifications and games and gambits. All you need is yourself.

  13. [...] you to keep your creative juices flowing! Good Luck!   Other blogs to read about being original: How To Be Original How to Become a Creative Genius If you want to be Original, Start from a Different Box Share [...]

  14. Michael says:

    Thanks for the great articles. I am enjoying reading not from the standpoint that anything you have said is revolutionary, just refreshing. It isn’t “10 steps to be like me” instead it is “10 steps to be myself”. I started the whole meet strangers thing at a big mall, just going around and talking to people, but took it a step further, getting a photo with them. It was amazing my success rate that night, 100%, well I only talked to two different groups, but it worked.
    Keep up the great articles!

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