A Technique of Producing Ideas

Producing ideas is one of those trite subjects that everyone thinks they know, but never practices. While reading best-seller "It's not who you are, it's who you want to be", I was referred to the old classic "A Technique for Producing Ideas".

It's a small book densely packed with great information on what its title describes. Here is the summary:

  • There are 2 keys to learning: grasping the principles, first, then the method

  • Following that, there are 2 core principles to producing new ideas:

    1. Ideas are no more, and no less, than new combinations of old elements
    2. The mind that can extract general principles out of myriad fields is one primed for idea generation
  • The author sugggests that being a student of social sciences is one of the best ways to cultivate such a mindset. I was hoping for elaboration here though.

  • Next comes the method. Author suggests that it's a 5-step process, and more counter-intuitively, the order matters. The order is no less definite than that of a factory assembly line. This runs in the face of the general wisdom that the creative process is an absolute maelstrom. There is method in the madness. In a very particular order, the 5 steps are:

    1.Gathering raw materials of 2 kinds: specific and general

    • specific materials are those most relevant to the task/ problem at hand.
    • general materials are from every other fields
    • the more raw materials you have, the more permutations for combinations
    • many of us avoid this tedious process
    • a creative person should be wildy curious in a wide range of fields, and possess a catholic browsing taste
    • Tip: write all bits of information you have collected on cards to make this process real

    2.Mastication of Ideas

    • chew your ideas, break them down, combine them, invert them, transfigure them
    • this part goes on in the head completely
    • you're seeking synthesis, where everything should come together
    • don't look at the facts too literally, rather glance at them obliquely. This is when creative people are most absent-minded
    • 2 things will happen:
      1. Partial ideas will come to you. Jot them down. They are the foreshadows of the real ones to come later.
      2. Your mind will tire of trying to fit everything together. Do not give up. Aim for the 2nd wind.
    • the ideal end-state is that your mind is in a hopeless jumble. you'll only reach here if you persist through the haze.

    3.Drop Everything

    • drop the whole subject, and turn to whatever stimulates your emotions. Listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
    • you're turning the work over to the subconscious mind
    • this is as definite a step as any other, don't neglect it
    • You remember how Sherlock Holmes used to stop right in the middle of it case, and drag Watson off to a concert? That was a very irritating procedure to the practical and literal-minded Watson.
      But Conan Doyle was a creator and knew the creative process.

    4.the Idea will appear

    • if you've done the first 3 steps diligently, the 4th will definitely happen
    • the Idea will come to you out of nowhere
    • it happened in the discovery of the half-tone printing process, as told by Mr. Ives, its inventor: “While operating a photostereotype process in Ithaca I studied the problem of half-tone process (first step.) I went to bed one night in a state of brainfag over the problem (end of the second and beginning of the third step) and the instant I woke in the morning (end of third step) saw before me, projected on the ceiling; the completely worked out process in operation.” (Fourth step)

    5.The Cold, Gray Dawn of the Morning After

    • bring your idea out to reality
    • you need to adapt it to real-world constraints
    • most ideas are lost here by idea men due to lack of patience
    • expose it to the world for criticism, you'll find that the right people will be really attracted to it


This, then, is the whole process or method by which ideas are produced:

First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, the working over of these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea – the "Eureka! I have it'' stage.

And fifth, the final shaping and development of this idea to practical usefulness.

Seah Ying Cong

Old soul in an older body.

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