“The knowledge of all things is possible.”
— Leonardo da Vinci
The good news is that unlike fuel, ideas are everywhere. All you have to do is get into the habit of regularly filling up your creative tank, and you will always have something to write about.
Accomplished writers, artists and even inventors cultivate a habit of constantly looking for ideas in unusual places.
Sometimes I wonder if wanting to know it all is a little greedy, but let’s go right to the top and look at how Leonardo da Vinci worked and created.
Painter. Inventor. Artist. Writer. Engineer. Scholar. Genius.
The main puts Richard Branson to shame.
When he died in 1519, he left behind dozens of notebooks filled with ideas for new art projects, paintings and inventions.
Some of these ideas, such as his initial concept for the helicopter, informed future inventions.
Da Vinci’s journals and notebooks are a triumph of creativity and a reminder of the importance of generating ideas every day.
He set the bar so high the rest of us get altitude sickness.
The Vitruvian man: One of da Vinci’s most famous drawings
That said, da Vinci’s ideas showed us how we can better understand the world around us.
All we have to do is cultivate an intense curiosity about our work and the wider world.
The academic and scholar Michael Gelb studied da Vinci’s notebooks and his life.
(His book How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci is an intriguing read).
Gelb recommends anyone who wants to become creative like da Vinci should make a habit of recording new ideas every day.
“Busy lives and job responsibilities tend to drive us toward hard conclusions and measurable results, but the exploratory, free-flowing, unfinished, non-judgmental practice of keeping a da Vincian notebook encourages freedom of thought and expansion of perspective. In the manner of the maestro, don’t worry about order and logical flow, just record.”
Raising the Bar of Your Ideas
Get a pen and paper and write down ten or even 100 ideas for whatever you’re working on.
Don’t judge, dismiss or censor whatever comes to mind.
Instead, record your idea and progress quickly to the next one. The task of generating so many new ideas will force your brain to make new connections and mash up old ideas.
If you’re struggling to come up with ideas, try writing down at least 5–10:
- Reasons why something will work/won’t work
- Reasons why you’re for/against something
- Ideas you can combine
- Things you need to do next
- Interviewees you could source
- Ways to open or close your story with a bang
- Questions you need answers to
- Unusual facts or pieces of information you possess
- Strengths/weaknesses of your chosen topic
- Ways you can experiment with your ideas
Much like free writing, it doesn’t matter where your ideas come from, if they’re silly or even useless.
Aim for quantity over quality.
As James Altucher notes, it’s easier to generate 100 ideas of variable quality than it is to think of one perfect idea.
After you’ve captured 35 bad ideas, there’s a much higher chance of coming up with one great idea.
Conversely, if you try to come up with one great idea for your writing project, it will feel impossible.
Raise the bar impossibly high and you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. At the very least, the more ideas you have to write about, the easier it will be to sit down in front of the blank page.
Every day, I write down ideas for blog posts, articles, short stories or even book chapters in my notebook.
Some of my ideas are terrible, and others never make it beyond my notebook.
However, by the end of the week I have lots of new ideas that I can sift through, and at least one always holds some value.
If I sound borderline obsessive about generating new ideas each day, it’s because I don’t want to run out of fuel when the time comes to write.
Review Your Ideas Religiously
Once you get into the habit of generating new ideas, you’ll find there are too many to act on. There just aren’t enough hours in the day and life carries too many commitments for you to write about everything you want.
(Isn’t that a better problem to have than writer’s block?)
So, you’ll need to evaluate your ideas each week.
Here’s the thing:
Acting on an idea carries an opportunity cost. When you write about one idea, you’re spending time that could be spent writing about something else.
For example, if I’ve got an idea for a Medium article and an idea for a book chapter, I can only do one of these things first. The question is:
How do I decide which idea is more important?
Ask yourself why you want to act on an idea and if it’s something you’re passionate about.
For a long time, I wrote about the wrong ideas. I reviewed products, games, services and music for various Irish newspapers. These articles were easy to write, I got to keep what I reviewed, and I enjoyed the process, at first.
Later though, I recognised I was criticising ideas other people had created and worked on, and it’s almost always easier to criticise than it is to create.
So I told my editor I didn’t want to reviews games, films or music albums anymore. I wanted to concentrate on writing news stories and feature articles. At least this type of writing would give me room to come up with ideas and make better mistakes.
I’m not a journalist anymore and now care more about getting my technique down.
This pursuit is harder and more time-consuming, but it’s also more satisfying.
Becoming a writer today means coming up with ideas every day and then spending time refining them down to an essential few that you act upon.
Archive or discard what you don’t need and then use the best ones as fuel for the blank page.