How do you have original ideas?
Sometimes it feels like everything has been said before. Is it just the pioneers who have original thoughts as they are at the forefront of research and science? Is there room left for the rest of us to have original ideas?
A look at biology
Biology has given us a great insight into how you can evolve something into something completely original.
When it comes to evolution, it does this very well. It uses two primary techniques to create original offspring.
The first technique is to use DNA from two parents and merge them. This creates variations on the active genes in the offspring and improves the chances of survival by distributing the stronger genes across the species.
The second is to create a number of random changes—mutations as we call them. Sometimes they have no observable impact, sometimes they are detrimental, but sometimes they create a superior offspring.
It is reasonable to say that the human species is far more original than the first single celled organisms for which it is a descendant.
The DNA of ideas
Ideas are no different. Consider that each idea has a 'DNA'—the information it represents. When we merely copy someone else's idea, we aren't adding anything original.
But what if we applied the same rules from biology to introduce variations and mutations to create something original? Let's see how this plays out for the two main techniques illustrated above.
Ideas taken from multiple parents
Sometimes originality happens when you combine two ideas together and you discover something new.
This is known as information synthesising, as we are intentionally making new ideas from the original.
Let's try an example with these two parent ideas:
- The use of spaced repetition to allow someone to store memories optimally by applying a spacing to exposure to the information
- Video games need instructional tutorials to teach the game mechanics before someone can play the game effectively
By combining these two ideas, you can start to see an opportunity to create something original. The new idea might be:
- The use of spaced repetition to re-introduce in-game challenges to help the player learn the game mechanics so they get the maximum memory recall resulting in enjoyment without frustration
Mutating ideas into something original
Like DNA, we can introduce deliberate mutations. You can use a variety of methods to create these mutations. For example:
- Deliberate mutations by deconstructing the components of the idea and removing, rearranging, adding or changing individual components
- Accidental mutations by allowing your mind to wander, misinterpret or go off on tangents
Here we want to break the idea down into its component parts. Let's work through an example around the 5 points to effective selling.
- Sell yourself first
- Listen more than you talk
- Know who to sell to
- Understand what motivates the prospect
- Keep it simple
So what happens if we start to mutate this list deliberately. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Let's give it a try.
- Sell yourself first → what about testimonial based selling where you're selling someone else?
- Listen more than you talk → Sounds simple, but why listen? What if you got your prospect to draw their situation? Why do you need to talk? What if you did a pure visual demo?
- Know who to sell to → Easy to say, but you need to find them to sell to them. What if you deliberately don't know, but use the wrong contacts as a stepping stone by getting them to point you in the right direction.
- Understand what motivates your prospect → What about going in completely blank and have no clue what motivates them, then use the listen technique above to figure it out on the fly?
- Keep it simple → Are there scenarios where keeping it complex is advantageous? What if you could get your prospect to feel super smart by understanding something complex?
As you can see, by tweaking these components we can start to challenge our ideas and go down different paths. Some might be failures, but some might not.
Sometimes you might have completely unrelated ideas sparked off the original idea. I frequently do this in my reading, where the topic sometimes allows my mind to jump to something unrelated. I'll record this fleeting note there in the moment and move on. Often this is related to a current problem I am facing and the book can spark some line of thinking related to that problem.
Other times, new ideas can come from a lack of understanding, or a misinterpretation. If I don't understand something, I often use literal, or visual ideas to try and comprehend it.
Let's say I'm reading something about 'mindset'. Here's how my mind might jump around from this idea:
- Visually think of the word 'mindset', like setting concrete, and your mind is fixed in place
- What would it mean to have a changeable mindset when it's fixed in place?
- Would that be the 'thawing' process to melt the concrete to free your mind?
- Can you do that forcefully, like with a hammer, or subtly, like turning up the temperature?
- So now I'm left with the idea that you cannot just change someone's mindset, but you must first free it from the concrete that fixes it in place, and that takes time and patience without being forceful. You need to gradually thaw the concrete bit by bit.
You can see how by having a simple idea, you can add a few mutations which can lead you to some really interesting and curious paths to come up with truely original ideas.
Putting it into practice
I highly recommend the Zettelkasten note-taking method to record your ideas as atomic notes (one idea per note). This allows you to link your ideas together and build a highly malleable set of thinking. You can create your own original ideas by combining existing notes or by mutating them.
If you would like to learn more about the Zettelkasten method, I have a range of videos teaching it in-depth.
Where the idea for this post came from
For the curious, the idea for this blog post came about when I was walking alongside a road and I was observing how all cars are almost identical to how they work (wheels, steering, doors, shape), yet they are from different manufacturers, designers and engineers.
I wondered how the DNA of what makes a car was preserved over the last 130 years. It's not like cars breed to pass on their DNA.
But it's the ideas that are conveyed in the car's DNA. They are copied, mutated, combined and challenged. And that's what they are, ideas. Ideas in the form of design, inventions and convention.
The way we come up with original ideas is the same. We stand on the shoulders of giants who have come before us, and we evolve it. One idea at a time.