If you a reader of James Altucher you are familiar with the habit of writing ten ideas a day. It has also appeared on Inc., The Muse, and many personal blogs. The promise is that if you stick with it for several months you will become an "idea machine," a term popularized by Altucher. The benefits are said to include the ability to generate limitless ideas on command and increased ease in combining multiple ideas in novel ways that can be leveraged in your business or personal life.
My intuition was that a link between the habit and the purported result was probable. However, given my conative strengths that influence how I gather information used for decision making I was driven to research the topic in more depth and find empirical evidence.
Why Go Through the Effort?
Growing up as a child who believed talents are innate and fixed, I (and many of my teachers) came to the conclusion that I wasn't endowed with the gift of artistic creativity. I had terrible penmanship in elementary school, struggled with drawing and painting, and didn't perform well in art class through junior high school. Once art became an elective I dropped it from my class list and did not reevaluate my creative skills for many years. I concluded that if I wasn't born with the talent there was no reason to subject myself to further confirmation and failure.
It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I began to receive praise for my ability to write and come up with inventive ideas in a business context. I got the nagging suspicion that perhaps I did have some latent artistic ability. Through practice and focus, I was able to gradually improve my creativity! This was a profound realization as it could not coexist with a belief in fixed traits. A series of similar experiences and further reflection led to a complete reversal of my viewpoint on inborn versus learned skills. Many years later, reading Mindset by Carol Dweck gave me the vocabulary and understanding to conceptualize these two ways of thinking. Referring to Dweck's findings, Daniel Pink wrote in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:
People can have two different mindsets, she says. Those with a "fixed mindset" believe that their talents and abilities are carved in stone. Those with a "growth mindset" believe that their talents and abilities can be developed. Fixed mindsets see every encounter as a test of their worthiness. Growth mindsets see the same encounters as opportunities to improve.
My mindset during childhood through young adult years could be best described as fixed, and in my twenties, I stumbled upon the realization that this way of thinking was all wrong. I gradually adopted a growth mindset and worked to reinforce this new way of thinking about skills and personal development.
This commitment to practicing new skills set me on a journey of continuous learning and discovery, which takes us back to becoming an "idea machine." I see daily idea generation as exercising the creativity muscle I wish to strengthen. While working on
Serendipitously I was reading Creativity by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and discovered several paragraphs describing divergent thinking which reminded me of the ten ideas a day habit. The more I researched the concept of divergent thinking and its inverse, convergent thinking, the more it made sense that devoting time daily to generating ideas does promote divergent thinking.
Brief History of Divergent and Convergent Thinking
The terms divergent and convergent thinking were coined by psychologist J.P. Guilford. During World War II the U.S. Air Force was looking for a way to select pilots that would come up with creative solutions when encountering unexpected issues in battle that would save both their lives and the plane. At the time IQ tests were already well established after having been used by the U.S. Army during World War I to select recruits, but these tests focused on an individual's ability to solve problems in which a single correct answer is readily available or can be determined through logical problem solving. It did not assess originality and creativity which the Air Force hoped would keep their pilots and planes in the air. This led to funding Guilford's research and subsequent development of the tests for divergent thinking.
Ideas and Divergent Thinking
"It [divergent thinking] involves fluency, or the ability to generate a great quantity of ideas; flexibility, or the ability to switch from one perspective to another; and originality in picking unusual associations of ideas." — Creativity by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
Csíkszentmihályi's research indicated that creative individuals who made significant contributions to their domain demonstrated thinking that was fluent, flexible, and original. This ability to use divergent thinking effectively was seen as a key enabler of their creative achievement, so it makes sense that cultivating the ability to generate a significant number of ideas and combine them in novel ways would be valuable for a creative endeavor. What better way to cultivate a skill than to practice it frequently and with intentionality!
Why Convergent Thinking Is Critical
In Altucher's post, The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine, he responds to the question "How do I know if an idea is a good idea?" with:
You won't. You don't. You can't. You shouldn't.
Although this statement appears to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek there is an important lesson that playfulness and a willingness to take risks is an important component of the creative process. Imaginative ideas and unique combinations seem to require the ability to entertain the fantastical.
However, generating thousands of ideas without an ability to identify the good ideas is not of much use. An approach to discerning whether a problem is soluble and whether your solution is both effective and novel is of immense value. Otherwise, you risk exhausting all of your time on dead ends and highly improbable paths. This selectivity is where convergent thinking comes into play. Without knowledge of the domain you are operating in and the ability to employ effective decisions making strategies it is unlikely that you will select a good idea from the many that were generated and successfully implement it.
Although yourself to be silly, carefree, and open when generating ideas but before executing on one make sure you've taken the time to understand the nature of the problem, your solution, and the associated context to which it fits.
Takeaway and Resources
If you've come across the idea of writing down ten ideas each day as a habit that helps increase your creativity but felt it was suspect, there is scientific research that backs up the idea that the ability to generate novel ideas and form connections between them is common to individuals who have been credited with a significant creative contribution to their field. These people seem to be fluent in both the divergent thinking that leads to novel ideas and the convergent thinking that helps them separate the good ideas from the bad.
If you are interested in learning more about how to get started writing ten ideas a day or for a list of topics to ideate about check out: