Epistemic Status: Reverse engineered from my brain. I’m pretty sure this is how it works in general, but your mileage may vary.
Stephanie Hurlburt asked this question (“How do you nurture your imagination?”) on Twitter. I thought it was a great question and gave a bunch of answers, but I thought it would be worth on expanding further on the point.
What do I mean by nurturing your imagination?
Nurturing your imagination is mostly achieved as the result of two things:
- Nurturing yourself, by ensuring that you have the room and the support you need to thrive.
- Developing the skill of having ideas that you find interesting.
Most people’s answers seemed to me to be focused on the former. This is all very well, and it’s certainly a thing worth doing in and of itself, but without the latter it probably won’t do anything for your imagination, so I’m going to focus on the latter.
First let me spell out some things that are not included in this. It’s not the skill of having good ideas. That’s practicality. It’s also not the skill of having ideas that other people fine interesting. That’s taste.
Practicality and taste are both fine skills that it is very valuable to develop. I strongly encourage you to do so. I also strongly encourage you to treat them with caution while working on developing your imagination. They combine very well with imagination, and are a great guide to it, but when your senses of practicality and taste tell you that your ideas are not going to work or are going to bore other people, take a step back and say “OK, that’s fine, but lets see what happens anyway shall we?”
If it turns out those senses were right all along, that’s fine. Your goal here is explicitly to do things that you find interesting, so it’s OK if they don’t work out as long as you’ve learned something in the process.
How do you find interesting things?
A necessary precursor to being able to have ideas you find interesting is the ability to find things interesting.
If you do not have this ability, that’s not a lack of imagination, it’s much more likely to be fairly severe depression. No, seriously, it’s a symptom. I would very strongly encourage you to see someone about it if you’re not already, and I’m afraid I don’t have any very good advice for you beyond that.
Assuming that’s not you, pick anything that you find interesting and would like to work on. Some examples of things I personally find interesting:
- Game design, and mechanism design more broadly
- Writing, fiction and non-fiction
- The behaviour of people
- The process of thought itself
- My own personal problems (and if you need it you have my permission to find yours interesting too)
Most of the advice in this piece comes from application to one or more of these.
One particular skill that is particularly useful here is to notice when you find things interesting, and start actively recording that. I use a mix of Twitter, my notebook blog, and a physical journal for recording things I find interesting.
What are ideas for?
In order to understand how to get better at having ideas, it’s helpful to understand why we want to have ideas at all. This may seem like a weird question to ask, but it’s actually quite an important one because most people are confused about the answer.
There are two big common misconceptions about ideas. The first is that they are the most important thing, and the second is that they are the least important thing. Both of these are badly wrong, but the truth is not so much in the middle as off to one side.
There’s a fantastic essay by Neil Gaiman that I’m going to completely disagree with in the next section called “Where do you get your ideas?“. I recommend reading it, but to quote the relevant bit to this section:
The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
This is spot on. An idea on its own does nothing. Execution and actually doing the hard work are the most important thing in any creative endeavour.
Right up until the point where you get stuck, at which point the idea becomes everything. Ideas are the smallest part, but sometimes the smallest part is crucial.
And this, ultimately, is the main point of ideas: Ideas enable you to do the work.
Understanding this is crucial for working on the ability to have interesting ideas, because it points to a crucial feature: You can only work on the ability to have ideas through a process of doing things (an activity that can consist of just sitting down and thinking real hard if you like, but it’s helpful to have something external that pushes back on you. At the very least try to explain it to someone else by writing about it).
Where do ideas come from?
Neil Gaiman’s answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” is “I make them up. Out of my head”.
I would file this under “true but unhelpful”. It’s like answering “Where does bread come from?” with “the oven”. Yes, bread does come from an oven, but the explanation is missing one or two quite important precursor steps and won’t help you much if you want to make your own bread. The interesting fact is not that the bread came from the oven, but how the bread got to the point of being in the oven in the first place.
(I don’t think Neil Gaiman would really disagree with me on this. A lot of what I’m saying in this section is alluded to in his piece too)
Where do ideas come from? They come from the adjacent possible. This is a concept that originally came from biologist Stuart Kauffman and was popularised in the context of ideas by Steven Johnson in his book “Where Good Ideas Come From” (which I haven’t actually read yet, though I’ve ordered a copy while writing this post and have read his “The Genius of the Tinkerer“, an essay adapted from it).
The adjacent possible is pretty much what it sounds like – the set of things that are currently possible when starting from what you already have.
Ideas build on existing knowledge, one step at a time. Einstein may have had an ah ha moment that lead to the theory of special relativity, and certainly his ability to do so was a testament to his intelligence and imagination, but a person in every way physically and intellectually identical to Einstein but born two thousand years earlier could never possibly have hoped to do it, because Einstein had two thousand years worth of ideas to build on and our hypothetical ur-Einstein did not.
The path from ur-Einstein to Einstein never strayed out of the adjacent possible, but each time humanity added to its collective knowledge the adjacent possible grew with it, and two thousand years of small, incremental steps took us from the point where even the paper that “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” was published on would have been a bold technological revolution, to the point where the concept of special relativity itself was part of the adjacent possible.
You probably won’t manage two thousand years of innovation all on your own, but the set of ideas you can have works much the same way, albeit on a smaller scale.
Your personal adjacent possible consists of roughly three things:
- Variations of things you already know (what happens if I do the thing but change this bit?).
- Previously untried combinations of things you already know.
- Things that you can find out from other people!
The third of course doesn’t really fall under the heading of “imagination”, but I think you’d be surprised how many “highly imaginative” people are just really good at asking the right people the right questions, and in cases where you actually need the ideas rather than are trying to work on the ability to generate them yourself, it’s often by far the best approach.
It’s also a great precursor for the other two. The reason all of this matters is as follows: If ideas come from the adjacent possible, and the adjacent possible accessible to you on your own is nothing but variation and recombination of things you already know, you can only have interesting ideas if you already know interesting things. You can get there the hard way if you want – starting from the basics and working outwards – but the more you learn the larger the scope of your own personal adjacent possible, and the more interesting things it will contain.
Personally I find the following are by far the most reliable ways of expanding the scope of the adjacent possible for me:
- Reading interesting books.
- Talking to interesting people.
Explaining the interesting books to the interesting people is often particularly effective.
How do you get ideas?
“Douglas Adams, The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (lightly edited)
SpaceThe adjacent possible is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to spacethe adjacent possible.”
Ideas come from the adjacent possible, as we just established – you take something you know, you vary it, or you combine it with something else you know, and you’ve got a new idea. Easy, right?
The problem with this is as a strategy for generating interesting ideas is twofold:
- There are a lot of potential ideas reachable this way.
- Almost all of the them are boring.
It’s important to ensure that your adjacent possible contains interesting things, but regardless of how many interesting things it contains, most things it contains will be tedious garbage. That’s no indictment on you or your knowledge base, that’s just how the numbers pan out.
What you need is a way to navigate your way through the adjacent possible to find those interesting ideas.
How do you do that?
Well, let me start by telling you what doesn’t work: Sitting down and trying to come up with an idea.
Coming up with an idea for the sake of coming up with an idea is hard and pointless, because ideas don’t do anything on their own. Instead, you come up with ideas by starting with something that needs an idea.
As per earlier, ideas are there to get you unstuck, so the way to come up with interesting ideas is to get stuck. Find a problem or a question that you think is interesting and you’re not sure how to solve, and try to solve it. If you succeed, try something harder – either vary the problem to make it harder if you still find it interesting, or try something new.
Ideally though, you won’t succeed. You will get stuck. Now stay there, because this is the point where ideas happen. You have a specific, concrete, problem that you are trying to solve, which vastly narrows down the area of the adjacent possible that you need to consider, and any idea you come up with to solve it will by definition be interesting because it helps you either solve or better understand an interesting problem.
I can heartily recommend this post by math with bad drawings talking to Andrew Wiles about this state if you want to learn more about being stuck, but broadly speaking my recommendations for once you’re in this state are:
- Think of problems like it that you have solved. Why won’t the solutions you used then work? Can you modify them somehow?
- Can you reduce it to a previously solved problem?
- Once you’ve sunk a few hours into it, take a step back. Don’t force yourself to solve the problem now, but let a certain amount of background processing happen. Sleep on it, go for a walk, take a shower, etc.
Where do you find problems?
It’s helpful for this to have a good source of problems you find interesting. A lack of problems to tackle is definitely not something I experience (send help, please), and it will depend a lot on what you find interesting, so I’m maybe not the best person to answer this.
Some people find it useful to have seed problems, such as writing prompts or using exercises from mathematics textbooks. I don’t do this, although honestly I probably should
There are a few things that are reliable generators of problems in general:
- The idea of the adjacent possible applies to problems as well as solutions. Vary old problems to get new ones – e.g. can you solve this without the thing you used to solve this previously, can you explain your solution to a four year old, can you explain it in a tweet?
- When you’ve figured out a clever new trick or idea, “What can I apply this to?” is itself an interesting problem that is worth spending some time on.
How do you get better at this?
So coming up with interesting ideas is as “simple” as combining the following:
- Knowing interesting things to get you started.
- Working on hard interesting problems.
The former is “easy” – you just read lots about things you find interesting and talk to lots of people about it. I’m sure you have lots of free time in which to do this (you probably don’t, but unfortunately there’s not much that you can substitute for it other than do the same things but more slowly).
How do you get better at the latter?
Fortunately, there is a fully general system for getting better at things:
Find things that you can already do that are like the things that you can’t do. Analyse what the difference is, and then try variations where you change one thing about them to make them more like the thing you can’t do. Work on those variations until they are no longer hard.
There are absolutely interesting problems you know how to solve, you just have to remember that they’re interesting – it’s very easy to dismiss something you know how to do already as boring because you know how to do it, but once upon a time you learned how to do it, and that’s probably because it was interesting to you. Start there. Make the problems harder until you don’t know how to do them.
If that doesn’t work for you, learn something new. A different area of maths, a new poetic form. Try writing under a pseudonym with a different style from your own.
Whatever you end up trying, making sure it’s something you have fun doing. It’s OK to be frustrated, but you shouldn’t be bored, and it shouldn’t be painful. If you have to force yourself to do it, try something else instead.
After all, the key feature of this is to think of things you find interesting. If you’re not enjoying doing so, why even bother?