Tuning Up the Generator

Let me start by saying I don’t need a pickup truck.

But there was an advertisement on TV the other day for a truck. The hook for buying this particular truck instead of any made by competitors is that the tailgate is articulated and folds down to create a step up into the truck bed. “The tailgate to end all tailgates,” the commercial proclaims. Probably not. I predict that other truck makers will soon sport this feature and that further refinements will be forthcoming. Nothing is the end all anymore if it ever was.

But, for eons, every tailgate when open has lain flat and level with the back of the truck. Every tailgate has been too high for normal humans to easily get into the truck bed. Somebody’s bright idea has, through relatively straightforward means, solved this problem.

I was intrigued. I don’t need a truck. I do, however, need good ideas. We all do.

Why/how does somebody suddenly look at a problem and envision a solution? Especially a simple and elegant solution that once found, appears so obvious. Why couldn’t I think of an articulated tailgate? Or Velcro? Rubber bands? Paper clips?

In this week’s podcast, James Altucher talks about generating ideas–about revving up our idea generators. For the past 20 years, James’ goal has been to come up with ten ideas a day.

Then he identifies easy ways to test them. This is key, as he explains on the podcast and in his book, Skip the Line: the 10,000 Experiments Rule and Other Surprising Advice for Reaching Your Goals.

I need some hacks for coming up with more ideas. Maybe you do too. One of James’ tricks is that he picks a topic, then focuses on coming up with ideas related to that topic. He’s worked at it until idea generation is a superpower.

Pick any topic. Can you come up with ten ideas? I tried during my interview with James. It’s a muscle I want to strengthen.

James talks about Skipping the Line; what I would call taking market risk. Playing where others are not. Generating and testing more ideas. Maybe you have a lot of ideas waiting for a chance to prove worthy. I think we often get hung up on the second step. Testing seems difficult and resource intensive. Simplifying the testing helps us learn fast. If our idea flames out—we’ve learned something valuable. Or if the test is a success, no failure. It’s either learning or success.

Abbas ibn Firnas was a 9th century polymath living in southern Spain, then known as Andalusia. A polymath is someone like Leonardo DaVinci—a brilliant student of many disciplines. ibn Firnas made contributions to astronomy and engineering, developed a process for manufacturing clear glass, invented lenses for improving vision, a model simulating the motion of stars and planets, and a method for cutting crystal and more. Lots of ideas, and good execution. We can only imagine how many ideas he tested without success.

ibn Firnas is most famous for attempting flight. He studied birds, and eventually devised a winged frame covered with feathers, and jumped off an elevated place in Cordoba, Spain. According to witnesses, he flew, or glided, for quite a while, before injuring himself on impact. He was one idea short of total success: he didn’t have a bird’s tail to land safely. Success and learning. No failure.

We can be so focused on execution that we forget to focus on generating new ideas. But if we want to climb our S Curves faster, and prepare for the next leap, a cache of readily tested new ideas is a treasure indeed.

My best,

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