Nine Ways To Light Your Creativity ON FIRE

I felt so ashamed. I had just lost my apartment in the city. I had no jobs. No prospects for jobs. No money. A few years earlier I had millions and then I had nothing. So I sold my apartment, scraped together some cash, and moved 70 miles north of the city. It was in the middle of a blizzard. I was scared of my neighbors.

I couldn’t get out of bed I was so depressed. I gained twenty pounds because I never moved my body. There was blizzard after blizzard. I didn’t go into the city at all, not even to attend the closing of my hated apartment, which took me almost two years to sell (at almost 50% of the price I originally listed at). I had no phone. Didn’t need one.  I didn’t feel like I would have any skills for a job and it was a recession anyway. I was really scared because my dad's career had basically ended in a similar way and then fizzled out from depression. The same thing was going to happen to me, I was sure of it.

I got an email the other day. Someone asked me, “when you are totally out of luck and feeling incredibly down, how do you spark that creativity up so you can get going again?”

We’re all creative people. Unless we’re just going to disappear and die, you have to spark it up again at some point.  And recession and politics doesn’t matter. We’re in a $15 trillion economy. There’s $3 trillion in cash lying in the bank. There’s six million private businesses. So once you’re creative again there’s no reason you can’t make money. Lots of it. I don’t care what the debt ceiling did today or what imaginary monster “downgraded” some other imaginary monster. None of that matters for creative people. None of that matters for you and me.

Nine Steps to Get More Creative RIGHT NOW

(1) Turn Upside Down. Not literally. But take any topic people hold dear. Turn it upside down. Pick a topic that people hold so dear its like a religion (See, “The 10 Commandments of the American Religion”). Education is one of those topics. Start thinking every day of 10 new ways people can get educated. Khan Academy is doing pretty good. Is he the only guy out there who can do something like that? Of course not. Advertising is another area. Publishing is another area. Turn it all upside down.

Real estate is another area that can still be turned upside down. Airbnb is only the start. Zillow is only the start. There’s a million ways. Take any topic that is practically a religious topic. Say out loud, “the way the world does this right now is bull-shit” and start thinking “why” and “how” to make it better. You’re not going to solve all the world’s problems right here. This is all to just start off exercising the creativity muscles. You need to start firing those neurons or axons or whatever again. But you never know, sometimes if you exercise enough, you can actually become a professional piano mover.

(2) List options. In chess, the first thing a grandmaster does when its his turn is not look deeply down one variation but takes a step back and lists all of the possible option moves.

Take a pad (my favorite choice: the waiter’s pad) and start listing options. I still do this all the time. Since its your own private pad your options can be as insane as possible. Who cares? Its your pad!

I made a list of options the other day. Even if I don't intend to do any of these its always helpful to list the possibilities for yourself. To list your options:

  • Start a fund (this led to another list of types of funds, types of investors, etc)
  • Start another online business (and then this led to another list)
  • Write a book about “the American Religion” (this led to me doing a list of chapters)
  • Write a novel (working on it today)
  • Try being a standup comedian just once
  • Get more speaking gigs
  • Create a “Dear Abby” column on the blog
  • Pitch a TV show (blech!)
  • Become a world famous painter (why not?)

And so on (these were the least embarrassing so I list them above).

And for every option you list, that creates new potential lists of options.  When I write “pitch a TV show” that means I now have to make a list of all the possible options there. The more sub-lists you write, the closer you get to execution.

Again, this is not supposed to lead to anything (yet) but just as exercises to kickstart the creativity. This also assumes you are getting the rest of your life together: The Daily Practice plus Avoiding Crappy People.

(3) Combine Ideas. Let’s say there are 10,000 possible things you can be interested in. That means there’s  over 100,000,000 ways to combine any two ideas to make a new idea. When I first met Claudia (an Argentinian who was obsessed with yoga) I instantly told her, “you should create Tango Yoga!” Take Tango moves, combine them with Yoga moves, write a book, take photos of beautiful tango dancers doing yoga poses, give classes, do a DVD, etc. Only problem is, she’s the only Argentinian on the planet who doesn’t know how to tango.

But that’s just an example. When I  started Stockpickr I took my two main interests at the time: making websites, and daytrading, and combined them into one website. BAM!

So do it! List all the things you’ve ever been interested in in your life. See which ones you can combine. Again, we’re just doing this for fun. No pressures. I’m IMing one guy right now as I type this: he’s interested in both the bible and being an entrepreneur. How about a book? “The 10 Best Entrepreneurs in the Bible”! BAM! Is it a good idea? Who knows? But if he does it I bet he can make a living getting speaking gigs about it. And he can self-publish using these techniques and not wait a year for some clueless publisher to figure out how to print up his book.

(4) New Technology. When the iPad came out, everyone should’ve been listing the multiple businesses that would be created off of that ecosystem. Now that we have Google+ I know several people already brainstorming the various businesses that can be created off of that. And do you think “location-based” is done? Do you think it was just a fad? We are not even singing the National Anthem on that one yet. Inning number one is still years away. Start thinking man! And show me the idea before you show it to anyone else.

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Start reading about every new technology you can find. You don’t need to be a nuclear rocket scientist to make use of new technologies. That’s what third-world Malaysians are for. You’re the idea guy! The cowboy on the frontier! There's technology now that can take your brain scan and tell you what letter you were thinking of. When are we going to have the "wiki-chip" that links Wikipedia to my brain? Chop-chop! Let's do it.

(5) Connect people. Why is LinkedIn so successful? Because it connects people. LinkedIn is worth billions. You don’t need to be worth that much. How about you become a mini-LinkedIn today? Find 5 sets of two people you can connect. Its just like combining ideas only now you are combining people. You don’t need any benefit from it. If you can think of two people who can help each other and you put them together then the universe will take care of your benefit. You don’t have to spend one ounce of energy thinking about it. Just be creative about who you can put together. Ok, GO!

I’ve gone to about four dinners in the past few months where the entire purpose of the dinners was to throw people together. I’ve gotten insulted, brutalized, made fun of, laughed at by Prime Ministers, ignored by supermodels, scoffed at by presidential candidates, but it’s been a great experience for someone as anti-social as me. And it’s strengthened my rolodex of people who I can introduce to each other. Become a connector.

(6) Make something. I don’t know how to paint, sculpt, collage, photograph, nothing. So those areas of my brain are completely dormant and atrophied. It would probably help every area of my creativity, including my business creativity and writing creativity if I just take out the watercolors my kids use and paint something. Or take a bunch of women’s fashion magazines and make a collage. It would take my mind off any anxieties I have, and get me focused on some creative time while at the same time I would be riding a steep learning curve.

So I asked my kids to give me a lesson on how to draw manga comic book characters. They were great teachers, I got to spend quality time with them, I sparked my creativity in an area I never thought of, and I made “stuff” (I have to call it that since I’m not sure they would approve of me calling it “manga”).

(7) Leave. You heard me. Go. Get away. Leave your house. Get in the car and drive a few hours away. Call in sick at work. Go someplace you’ve never been before. Turn your mind off for a day. Find an obscure museum you can visit. Let me tell you a story. In 2004 I got a letter from the IRS. I got scared. At first I panicked. But then once the situation started to calm down I did the only thing I could do – I left. I went to an ashram sort of place for a long weekend in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t speak at all for three days. I ate good. I exercised, meditated, sat at the table where nobody spoke, and kept to myself. By the time I got back I was ready to start my next business and I did and it worked.

You can’t leave all the time. But one afternoon every two or three weeks take an “art day” for yourself. Leave and don’t look back. Have fun.

(8) Virtually Leave. Sometimes when I’m thinking about what to write about I start checking out websites that I know do a good job curating creativity. Inevitably it will have me start thinking. Here are some of my favorites:

  • (note: not safe for work. This site is run by an 80 year old guy who is an awesome curator of creativity. BUT, he intermixes the great sites with his favorite artistic porn pictures. He can do without those but I'm sure they drive traffic.)
  • There’s about 1000 others. They get the juices flowing in my brain sometimes. Usually I try to write by reading first and getting that to inspire me. I’ll read a writer with a strong autobiographical voice. If that doesn’t get me going I’ll switch to a spiritual text. If that doesn’t get me going, I start hitting the above sites.

(9) Seek HELP. Sometimes you really are down and out. Sometimes you really can’t get out of bed. Sometimes life has beaten down on you or me or whoever a little too much. That’s ok also. You can’t just go to a museum and suddenly your brain is on fire with ideas. Every now and then you need a little bit of extra love and attention. Don’t ignore the possibility that you might need a doctor to talk, to medicate, to listen, and just work through things while you are going through a tough period.

On a regular basis, I do all nine of the above.  In my article on “The Daily Practice” I mention four legs of the practice that I work on every day. The third is the “mental” leg – i.e. working on the idea muscle. This is the way I work on the idea muscle, by applying all nine of the ideas above.

Eventually, in 2002, after my depressive exile from NYC, after all the blizzards, and the silence, and the anxiety of wondering if I was ever going to get off the floor again, I found my creative voice. But it took all of the above. It took the Daily Practice. It took the various posts I mention below. Most of all, it took me getting out of bed and telling myself that I wanted to live again.

I'm still alive.

– – –

Related Posts:

  1. How to Be the Luckiest Guy on the Planet In Four Easy Steps
  2. Plug all your leaks or you will die
  3. Nine Ways to Fight Fear
  4. Nine Ways to Guarantee Success

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  • I like these a lot, especially lists, leaving, and making something.  Going to start learning the guitar to exercise a different part of my brain, have a feeling it will have benefits I wouldn’t have thought of.

    • Kamal, that sounds exciting about the guitar lessons! Its definitely worth the time.  I’m finding that is true for me as I get back into chess lessons for the first time in 14 years.

      • Well, I broke my arm last month.  Just a simple fracture, so the doctor set it and told me to come back in 2 weeks to get the cast off.  Yesterday he sawed off the cast, and asked him if I’d be able to play the guitar tomorrow and he said yes.  That’s fantastic! — I’ve never played the guitar before.

    • Anonymous

      I’m going to buy a snare drum and beat the shit out of it. Creative release. 

  • Kevin Dunseath

    Great post, James-  I really need to start doing the pad and list thing.  Doing that is now the one item on my list.

  • Hi James-
    enjoy this list very much and would add
    10. Help Someone Else Less Fortunate..
    thank YOU*

  • Jesussaves897

    he’s a jew

  • cindyluwho

    Thanks, I needed that. I think you could have a future as an advice columnist. You are Good James!!!

  • Anonymous


    I’ve been reading your website for the past few months and have found it very helpful.  I’ve implemented a few of your ideas already and plan to begin adding some more like the ones suggested in this post.  I am in the process of changing careers and going into an area I am completely unfamiliar with but feel there is potential for upside and growth.  I have been a day-trader for the better part of the last 12 years and have finally decided to close my account a few weeks ago and move on.  I was fairly successful for some of my earlier years and also a couple of years in between but held on longer than I should have.  It was certainly not an easy decision but one I knew I had to do for myself and my family.  Not sure why I gave all the background, but just wanted to say thanks for the insights and posts. 

    On a side note, I think I remember you referring to Louis CK as one of your favorite comics in a prior post.  He is one of mine as well and I feel you have many similarities to him.  You both cut through the bullshit and say things that many people are probably thinking but would never say out loud or put in print.

    • Glenn, good luck with the change. Daytrading is brutal so I bet you will be surprised how everything else “feels” by comparison. But its still tough to get out of that mindset as I know all too well.

      On Louis CK its a funny coincidence. Claudia and I just watched the last two episodes of “Louie” back to back.

  • Izzatina Aziz

    Good post although Malaysia is no longer  a third world nation. Proper definition will be an upper middle income country. 

  • Izzatina Aziz

    Good post although Malaysia is no longer  a third world nation. Proper definition will be an upper middle income country. 

  • Steven L Goff

     “Khan Academy is doing pretty good. “….niceeeeeeeeeeeeeeee   ;)

  • Steven L Goff

    “Start a fund (this led to another list of types of funds, types of investors, etc)”……..ahhhhhhhhhhhhh you do have my email and phone number right?….just sayin’

  • Anonymous

    Wondering why a TV show is blech. Couldn’t you take the self-publishing approach you love over to Youtube? Or is it the pitching part that’s blech, in which case just find-and-replace on your self-pub post and you don’t need the middlemen anyway.

  • Anonymous

    James you’re Hemingway on crack! It inspires me to see you turn quality content day in and day out. 

  • Jacqueline Stevens

    The best advice (actually an admonishment) I have heard all week is that everyone should have listed the multiple businesses that the I Pad would generate.  Am I just shamelessly brown nosing?  Perhaps, but I have had some pretty bad advice this week.

  • Jacqueline Stevens

    The best advice (actually an admonishment) I have heard all week is that everyone should have listed the multiple businesses that the I Pad would generate.  Am I just shamelessly brown nosing?  Perhaps, but I have had some pretty bad advice this week.

  • Great words. The creative creature will always overcome any imaginary monster.

  • Hey…. I’m upside down right now. The nerd whose cash is slipping through his pockets because I’m holding him upside down is: the art industry. Everybody knows the art industry’s standard practices are terrible.

  • Mano Subramaniam

    Hi, I just don’t get what you mean by ” That’s what third-world Malaysians are for.” I’m a Malaysian,  and just curious what you mean by that?

  • MPNussbaum

    Los Salares de Uyuni. Man I love that place.

  • John Hilderley

    James, I don’t know if you follow a Torontonian, Richard Florida, who is chronicling the rise of a new economic paradigm he calls the Creative Class. Essentially he predicts that creative people will inherit the earth. You should give him a read.

    I can’t tell you how much how I enjoy reading your blog. If Florida is the prophet you are the guide; leading the creative hoard to the Promised Land. Guiding is more difficult than merely recording history – and you are doing an amazing job!

  • Peter

    Great post James.

    With regards to turning things upside down I’m reminded of this quote by Buckminster Fuller

    “You never change things by fighting
    the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes
    the existing model obsolete.”

  • Siddhartha Herdegen

    I love thinking big and making lists. A note on offshoring
    production however, I’ve been highly unimpressed with the ability of foreigners
    to generate products with American aesthetics.

    It takes a tremendous amount of hand holding and explanation
    to produce a quality product. In many cases you’ll spend as much time
    explaining it as it would take to do it yourself if you had the technical

  • Anonymous

    Wow, thanks; great timing – I definitely needed this now…

  • John H Legend

    Inspirational my friend…Side note:  Be careful how you label people “Third World Malaysians”?
    Have you ever been to Malaysia? I’m just saying….P.S. I am NOT Malaysian, I’m from the city..

    Otherwise, thanks for the inspiration….John.

    • John H Legend

      Oh OK!! I get it…That was intentional….:) Clever….See, the juices are flowing already…


  • 10)  upgrade your relationship lifestyle with the opposite sex.  not so easy and straightforward.  will force you to be creative to come up with solutions to the quandries that arise in this challenge. 

  • I’d add to this “Start writing/journaling”. I have been amazed at what can come from just writing random thoughts and putting them all into writing. 

  • I’m still working on “plugging my leaks” and the “daily practice.” This is hard work….but I’ve mastered not buying a house. :)

    nice post.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you James

  • Guy

    Damn you James – just got my daily fix of Altucher ‘out-of-the-box thinking’ and being a prolific ideas man myself I totally relate to what you say about creativity … except something you commented on triggered off a line of creative thinking and voila, I now no longer only have 4 “I can change the world” web based start-up ideas, I have 5. Enough already. I am drowning in amazing ideas … which is all very well in principle but extremely frustrating for someone who is not even a programmer. 

    And like all creative people, I much prefer letting my creative juices run riot rather than getting organised and actually implementing them. 

    What the heck, let’s take some action here – any talented programmers (Ruby?) out there amongst your readers who are great at hacking but maybe not so good at knowing how to channel their talents into creating a viable business ? Maybe the seed of a great new start-up emerges out of this post – we could even offer James the first angel investment opportunity for being the ‘trigger man” … 

    • Anonymous


      • Guy

        Can’t see how to contact you through Disqus – here’s a temporary email to send me your email address –

    • Bobobrian

      yup.. send me a note :)

      • Guy

        Can’t see how to contact you through Disqus – here’s a temporary email to send me your email address –

  • Love creative boosts. Especially those that get people off their asses! 

    I think the seek help is crucial. Not even from a “I’m about to blow my brains out” stand point that you must have felt early on, but from a professional development view. 

    It’s something I should be doing more often. 

    • It’s good to talk to a professional. But like any profession, there are bad ones and good ones. Make sure you find a good one.

  • J. Thanks for the resources, is awesome. Have an wonderful day!

  • Travis_alan

    add this to your list of creativity-instigating sites:

  • pjc

    I think a lot about this period of your life. You’re written about it many times, but it is endlessly fascinating to me. This is a life experience I can relate to – both a “crash” as your plans blow up, and a “rebirth” as you take an absurd leap and re-imagine something in totally new way. 

    It’s great that you write about this. I think there is a bit of a scam in the psychotherapy field in that people are given pills first and foremost. I think the first step towards recovery should be self-healing strategies such as the ones you outline, and pills should be more of an emergency and/or temporary fix.

    • Yeah, I agree. Sometimes people just need pills. But often, there are many (harder) methods that one can do to get that boost of energy needed to get off the ground. Combinations of meditation, creativity. connection with friends, sleep, exercise, etc.

  • TonY


  • This is great advice, James. Thanks.

    I think your “Dear Abby” column idea would be a total winner.

  • When are you publishing the autobiography James? i look forwarding to reading it.

    • Ha, well, my last book (self-published) has some autobiographical components. And I have a comic coming in December and getting another book ready to self-publish.

  • Anonymous

    James thanks for adding an example list in this post. 

  • Tif

    Thanks James for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now and really enjoy that you cut the crap and are realistic with your tips and advice. You don’t give false hope.

    Your writing style is engaging and humorous and your topics are interesting. Your posts make me want to write more, free myself from my job and dive into what I truly want-to start my own business.

    Thanks again!!

  • Bobobrian

    Hi James, new reader here and and enjoying what you have been writing so far..  I’m curious, you’ve mentioned in many of your posts that you “had millions, then lost it all”. Did you really lose it all or did you get to a point where you had, saw 6 months expenses left and had to turn it around?

    I enjoy your honesty – I’ve recently read a “self-made millionaire” book “nothing to lose” – but it turns out “self-made” meant having a hot mom who hooked up with a very wealthy man who led him by the hand. You truly seem to be self made and I’ve been enjoying your stories.

    •  I’ve made it, lost it (gone to zero), a few times.

      • Bobobrian

        HOLY CRAP!  Did you write a piece on how you make your way back from the abyss? The going the zero is a horrible aspect that you would read about in the dark with the sheets over their head and a flashlight.. 

      • Bobobrian

        I guess I’m asking what was the thing you did that pulled you back from zero?
        Get a job writing/trading? It must have felt great when you got your first check after going to zero..

  • James, I’ll send something your way.

  • This is just what I needed. Thanks James

  • KevinF

    What do you think of It’s often a source of inspiration and creative juice to me. Would you consider speaking at TED?

  • fozzybear


  • Anonymous

    There are good nine ways to Light your creativity ON FIRE. I am really happy with your creativity ideas. I think there are multiple ideas of your creativity.

  • I appreciate the advice you give here – not just here, but on several of your articles. It is not just the advice, of course – but your enthusiasm is extremely infectious, and for that I am very grateful.

    I do have an example of “combined ideas” going on at my website, something that I am quite passionate about, and something which I am convinced can change people’s lives.

    I did want to ask about one thing: You rather casually throw in this tantalising possibility, “But if he does it I bet he can make a living getting speaking gigs about it.” I wondered if you could expand on that – a blog post, maybe? Are there any tips for “getting speaking gigs?”

  • Biz

     Hey man, Personally, I’ve trashed you on some of the comment sections of Yahoo! on a couple of vids you were featured in, namely Gold vs Fiat currency and Renting vs. Owning. I still disagree with your positions greatly but I’ve been reading your blog and I see where your head is at, you have some great ideas, so I just wanted to pass it along that there’s people out there who maybe have insulted you but who can appreciate your valuable ideas as well. Peace.

  • Dcarkuff

    Hey Jim, how on God’s green earth does someone who has everything end up with nothing?  How does that happen without actually going to the effort of making that happen???  And how is it possible for someone who is inept enough to have everything and then lose it capable of making millions again.  Now, to be fair, I have squandered money in my day, but I have never had enough money for it to matter much.  There is, apparently, some fraternity that I will never be a member of who share some secret about making more money than 99% of the people on earth earn in an entire lifetime.  I wish someone would let me in on it.  Maybe I just lack the gumption, I don’t know.  I was always a creative person with lots of big ideas, but, you know, just as success breeds success, failure breeds failure.  Maybe you make your own luck and maybe you don’t.  I don’t put much stock in IQ tests, but according to those I have taken, I am in the top 99.9 percentile.  Yet, still, I am your basic failure.  I must lack some basic quality which prevents me from joining the success club.  I will tell you this, though, if I ever had “millions” I can guarantee you I would never find myself in a position of having “nothing”.  Remember that idiot rap guy with the parachute pants – MC Hammer, I think – anyway, he made probably around 100 million dollars and managed to squander every single penny.  How can somebody be that stupid?  I mean, after you lost, say, the first 75 million, wouldn’t you maybe think – jeeze, I’ve got rethink how I’m living.  or maybe I shouldn’t be using $1000 bills as kindling to light the fire in my fireplace.  I’m sorry, it just pisses me off to read about people who have wealth beyond my comprehension squandering it away.   I do appreciate your advice in general about being creative in your approach to life.  On the other hand, for the most part and to a very great extent outliers are crushed and it is one dreamer in ten million whose dreams who gets anywhere in the world.

  • GREAT POSTS! I also think that reading random information or things that you would not normally read/ watch, etc truly help you begin to get more creative. Also, taking a few minutes to LOOK at and EMBRACE your physical space can help with this as well.

  • Richard Sher

    I am very glad I found you on the net. I have had three very challenging years. I’m 59.
    Sorry I haven’t posted for about a year, I got tired of writing depressing things. I just moved to Costa Rica into a house I payed for. I had the worst financial year trading Gold and silver contracts. What money I preserved in the account was pillaged my MF Global.” MF”  is short for Mother Fucker, BTW.

  • Richard Sher

    Sorry, I didn’t finish the sentence about the house in CR……I payed for but intended to sell it. the Real Estate market tanked and I could nt rent it for anything reasonable so that is why I am her now.

  • Daboss07

    Wow!  This has really opened my eyes.  Thank you for writing this. I am a creative person and sometimes you need a boost like this. Great Article!

  • Malini

    i love your writing and your blog…. have been reading and reading since i watched Ramit Sethi’s interview with you on his program… then i read this line in this post:

    “Start reading about every new technology you can find. You don’t need to be a nuclear rocket scientist to make use of new technologies. That’s what third-world Malaysians are for”

    I’m a Malaysian – what is that comment supposed to mean?

    • ramsey mullaney

      Its an arrogant statement, where he’s not thinking about what it really means. many Americans think they’re the Wonders of the World, and other countries are beneath them. (the same mentality that made slavery normal for 400 years). I’m sure he’ll say the same.

  • mona

    Hi James. Hey i love ypu man. But i am a Malaysian. What’s that third world comment all about?

  • wonderwitch

    Thank you for this great inspiring post James! You really help people and make a huge deference in their lives! Karma will pay you and if my ships dock i will be sending your books as Christmas and birthday presents to everyone I know!
    Bless you!
    Josephine Lindahl