How to Have GREAT Ideas

Some Tattoos are on people who have Great Ideas

This is from the Twitter Q&A I do every Thursday but the answer got so big I wanted to put it in it’s own post. Also, this solves an issue that is coming up every day in this economy:

  • And this post is not just about coming up with ideas to get rich. It’s about ideas to help yourself be a better person. It’s about ideas to help the people around you. It’s about ideas to help people you don’t even know and make the world a better place. It’s how I saved my life.


Ishant Krishna@i_ishantkrishna I am confused about the “concept of ideas”. Please  elaborate more on the basics of producing more productive ideas.


I want you to be an idea machine. For the past 20 years all I’ve done is come up with ideas. Most of them bad, horrible. Ugly, stupid. I got thrown out of graduate school for having too many bad ideas. I wrote four unpublished novels. I’ve had 20 businesses in a row fail on me.

I lost the first home I bought. I lost all my money. Fifteen million cash. I went to zero. I was literally crying on the floor while my baby was crawling over to me to get to her toys. I couldn’t get a loan of a few hundred dollars just to ensure I could provide diapers and food for the weekend. From my own parents! Nobody trusted me.

But WHENEVER I’ve been stuck on the floor I knew the only way to kick into action was to start building my idea muscle again. Because it is in those moments that my brain had become smaller, damaged, and my idea muscle had atrophied. And from that moment it takes six months (on average) to 100% change my life around.

If you were sick in bed for ten days and then tried to walk you wouldn’t be able to. How come? Because your leg muscles have atrophied. Just two weeks of non-use and you might need six months of therapy to walk normally again.

We’re in a world that is running 1000 miles per hour. If you let your leg muscles atrophy you will get left behind.

The idea muscles in your mind are the EXACT same way. They atrophy in about ten days of non-use.


So start now, every day list 10 ideas. I make a list every day. It can be a list on anything. Today I did a list of 10 kindle singles I can write. One of them I will pick and do within the next 2-3 weeks.

The other day I did a list of ideas I could maybe use as standup material.

The day before that I did a list of 5 Ways in which Procrastination is Great.

In my first successful business, Reset, I would come up with 10 ideas a day for each of my clients. Ideas that could help them improve their websites.

In my business, Stockpickr, I would come up with at least 10 new ideas for features every day.

When I was running my fund of funds I would come up with 10 ideas a day to get new clients.

Other days I make list of businesses I can start. And some days I make list of features that can be added to businesses I’ve already started. Or blog post ideas. I have 80 blog posts in my Drafts folders as a result. Most of them have good lists but I’m not satisfied with the writing yet.

So what happens after a year: you have 3650 ideas. Out of those maybe one or two might be decent.

BUT, the more you do it, the better the muscle is. Then people will start saying, “Man, you are an IDEA MACHINE!”

I want you to be an idea machine. I really want it for selfish reasons. I need some help on something. Once you are ready you can give me ideas on where this blog is going.

STEP 2: WHAT IS AN IDEA? An idea is not just “I will start an airline for outerspace”. That may or may not be a good idea. An idea is a tuplet. It looks like this:

[idea, spec of the whole idea, next step to execute, timeline]

So, for instance, if I have an idea for a Kindle Single it might look like

[“I am Running for Vice-President” kindle single, (then I list the table of contents), expand these 5 blog posts and then write X,Y,Z original material, download the kindle single guidelines from Amazon and then put the text in the right format and upload to Amazon, I can work on it for 3 hours a day and be done by next week]

THAT is a full idea. Write ten of those.


I bet you didn’t know that ideas have sex. And they have children.

The more ideas you have running around in your little rabbit cage, the more rabbits you will get. And generations evolve fast. When I started Stockpickr it was the mating of my ideas on the Internet with my ideas for a new hedge fund. The best ideas always come from mating. Think of Hollywood. When they pitch an idea its never just “I have this idea”. Its always “It’s “James Bond” meets “the Titanic” ”

Hollywood pitches are all about mating ideas. Ditto for Silicon Valley pitches. Ditto for any pitch. Why can’t people say, “its like James Bond”. Because James Bond has already been done. But when you says “its like X +Y”  then people all lean back and their beautiful imaginations begin to dance with your idea. What does it look like when you mate X and Y. Its IDEA PORNOGRAPHY! Its art. Its beauty.

Let’s look at Google! The best company in the world.

Google came from ideas in search (which was a failing industry at the time) mating with ideas about what makes scientific research papers important (how many citations from other papers refer to a paper). These were totally separate ideas that had never been mated before. And guess who came up with the idea? Did you just think Larry Page!? WRONG! Did you think Robin Li, who started Baidu? Then yes! But he was working at Dow Jones at the time who couldn’t figure out what to do with his idea. So he left the one company that reports on capitalism, he left the most capitalist country in the world for the most communist country, and set up his company there.

How come? Because ideas have no geographic boundaries.


You can have a one night stand. But if you don’t have true passion for an idea you’ll never get married and have children.

It’s ok to not have passion. You have 3650 ideas per year. If you had passion for each idea I’d say you were an idea slut. Just relax already.

When you have passion here’s what happens:

A) you read everything you can about the history of the idea.

B) you read everything you can about the science of the idea.

C) you build the idea. Now your idea is not just one idea but 100s. It’s a family of ideas. Passion multiplies an idea very quickly. Because every day you are coming up with ten new ideas to make your original idea better. You are coming up with features, design ideas, distribution ideas.

I will give you an example. I have an idea. Every day I’m coming up with ideas to add to the original idea: gamification, voyeurism, distribution, other ways that I can help people with the idea, other groups of people I can help and how, ideas for the UI, ideas to add content, ideas for people I can involve, ideas for partnership. And I read books every day about different aspects of  the idea.

And STILL the idea might not work. But I have passion for it.

What does passion really mean?

It means two things. That you are in love. And also that nobody can beat you. When I started Stockpickr I had passion for it. Some business school students out of Stanford had a similar idea. They lost badly. Because they thought this could be like a school project. You don’t date and marry a beautiful girl because it’s a homework assignment. You do it because you have passion for her and you want to do everything you can to make sure she’s happy.

Another example. A friend of mine had an idea for a new type of tennis racquet. I liked the idea. I bought all sorts of books about the science of making a tennis racquet plus the history of it. And then you know what? I got bored by the fifth date. I lost the passion. So I stopped. And now I have all this useless knowledge in my head of how to build a tennis racquet. But you know? Maybe ten years from now that knowledge will mate with another idea and the Messiah of all ideas could be born.

You never know.

So I am going to tell you what to do right now (a summary of above) and in six months your life will be completely different.

A) eat healthy, sleep a lot, and exercise. Your body needs to have oxygen and blood flowing properly to your brain to come up with ideas.

B) get rid of all negative people. They will turn your ideas into vomit before the words even leave your mouth.

C) make a list of ten ideas per day as described EXACTLY above. Keep track of all your ideas. I have ideas from 2002 I think are good that I still have not implemented yet but I know I will.

D) Be grateful you have this opportunity to come up with ten ideas a day. Say “thanks, world, for letting me do this.”

E) And wait. Be patient. Don’t criticize your ideas. A bad father can produce a beautiful son. Every idea has healthy sperm. Your first few ideas once you start following this post, are like the first few times you had sex (uhhh, if you are anything like me). They usually involve some sort of apology. But at least you are no longer a virgin. Now go forth and multiply!

F) If your ideas require research, then read. Wikipedia is a good start. Never stop reading. But what you read is important. If you read shit then your brain will become malnourished. I will put together a good reading list. But you already know what is good for you and what isn’t.

You are an IDEA MACHINE! An Idea Warrior. Now your body and mind must flourish and you must do all of the above. Then success and dreams will come true. How much time will it take? If you do the above: six months for at least one good idea. Six months and your life will be completely different. Give yourself about 3-5 years to get rich. But never be upset about the pace.

You are the idea warrior, about to conquer great worlds and kingdoms in other dimensions other than this meager and petty one. I am envious of the adventure you will embark on. Because it will be exciting and the first time you realize that ideas that spring out of your head are actually helping people will be the best moment in your life. I know because I’ve been there. And I’m never going to stop.

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  • Another great read, James. You’re always inspiring me to be better. Thanks. Now off to write down some ideas.

  • G. play

  • James, too

    Hi James, great blog and post.  I can relate to much of what you are saying.  I like to write fiction, and never used to have any problems with creating new ideas.  I couldn’t take a walk without a new story taking shape in my head.  Then I developed some health issues (didn’t take very good care of myself) and that consumed me.  I became the poster child of what happens to your ideas when you don’t eat right.  I’d write only about trying to get healthy and my fiction dried up.  Now I’m back to focusing more on stories but my idea muscle has definitely atrophied.  I’m a better writer from all of the unwanted experiences – my few ideas are put to better use – but my ideas are few and far between.  I was never a list maker, but I think in the past I was essentially doing what you suggest without realizing it.  Now I’m going to have to put work into coming up with ideas, as you suggest, to get those muscles working again.  BTW, I’m intrigued by your self-publishing posts, but wonder if self-publishing is the way to go with a first book from an unknown writer???  I could self-publish my book at any time, but I also would be interested in finding a good editor who can challenge my thoughts and help the book to be better.  A friend suggested  Any experience with that?  Thanks

  • James, too

    Hi James, great blog and post.  I can relate to much of what you are saying.  I like to write fiction, and never used to have any problems with creating new ideas.  I couldn’t take a walk without a new story taking shape in my head.  Then I developed some health issues (didn’t take very good care of myself) and that consumed me.  I became the poster child of what happens to your ideas when you don’t eat right.  I’d write only about trying to get healthy and my fiction dried up.  Now I’m back to focusing more on stories but my idea muscle has definitely atrophied.  I’m a better writer from all of the unwanted experiences – my few ideas are put to better use – but my ideas are few and far between.  I was never a list maker, but I think in the past I was essentially doing what you suggest without realizing it.  Now I’m going to have to put work into coming up with ideas, as you suggest, to get those muscles working again.  BTW, I’m intrigued by your self-publishing posts, but wonder if self-publishing is the way to go with a first book from an unknown writer???  I could self-publish my book at any time, but I also would be interested in finding a good editor who can challenge my thoughts and help the book to be better.  A friend suggested  Any experience with that?  Thanks

  • All your pics make sense but the tattooed woman, really? Do tats help with ideas? j/k.

    Great post!

    • I actually had a subtitle to that photo initially but it got lost somehow. It was “sometimes ideas can take all forms”. 

  • My friend jon sterling (@mistersterling:disqus) was telling me I should write all my ideas down..and that led to :)

    I have an idea I’m super passionate, and you’re right – the idea grows every single day. I’m constantly thinking of new features and strategies to make it better. Working with a designer and developer now to get it built.

    • What a pleasure that is. 

      • Not sure if it was clear or not, but the businessideas247 site is not the idea I’m working on building. Just a little side project to share all the crazy business ideas I have. I’m working on a new travel website.

  • Impeccable timing, James. As usual. Sometimes I think perhaps you’re spying on me in the mornings before you decide what post to put up.

    I was about to dig around for one of your old posts about the ideas list.

    I want to put a different spin on it though. I’m not trying to start a business or make a million dollars. I want to list different writing projects. Ten ideas a day. Articles, novels, poems, short stories. And blog posts of course.

    Anyway, thanks for this.

    Also, can we collaborate on this reading list you’re putting together?

    •  I do sit on your nightstand wondering out loud, “when is she going to wake up already so I can read her mind and write a post!”

      And yes, would love to trade book ideas. I’ve been so frustrated lately. I feel like a year ago I had my perfect set of books. Now I have to really WORK to find the one good book out of 10 that inspires me. Would love to exchange notes.

      • Nirali J

        I love both of your blogs and I want to set on a reading mission and can’t wait to get my hands on the reading list! :)

        • Start with everything Amy Hempel ever wrote. That’s a place I know that James and I agree.

          And thank you so much for the compliment. I love your comments.

  • Dave

    OMG, This is freakin’ brilliant!

  • Erroljudy

    Going to try it.

  • Patience when USED deliberately can prevent many heartbreaks. I have used the daily practice..though am not always consistent and it works. Somehow, the questions/ideas I send out there come back with results beyond my imagination. It’s uncanny how things work out..I have just “sticky noted” the summary of this post. Thanks.

    • Veeh, don’t worry about being consistent. The fact that you acknowledge it could be helpful means you have your head in the tiger’s mouth. There’s no turning back now. Welcome.

  • A new idea is a recombination of old elements. Therefore you’re right: it is important to read and just acquire knowledge of the issues related to something. Then, if you’re lucky, the association between elements will occur. But sometimes the most interesting ideas come when one is not thinking about it; in the oddest moments.   

    •  Yes, old ideas + new reading + new ideas == baby ideas that can be GREAT ideas.

  • Do you continue the lists after you have started a new project/ business, or does your list then become basically a list of ideas to enhance your new project (thus staying focused) , or both?
    My ideas are out of control, too many at once without follow through or focus…Sometimes in the middle of the night I create entire business ideas, and then I cant sleep, leaving the next day with the real businesses a little lackluster.

    Lack of focus

    • I sometimes make new lists completely. And I sometimes make lists to enhance the ideas I have. For instance, Claudia and I have been workingon a much more more expanded list of alternatives to college. But I also did a list today of improvements to a site I’m working on. 

  • Negative people telling you your ideas are shit, or there’s too much risk in involved, or you don’t have the experience or the drive or the know how, need to be cut out of your life. That’s great advice. You don’t hear that too often. You usually hear, don’t listen to the negativity. But removing them from your life is the right move. Don’t talk to them. Don’t tell them anything your thinking or working on. They will just cause you to doubt yourself. And that’s when you start making bad decisions. Great post as usual. 

    •  Thanks. I IMMEDIATELY eliminate anyone negative. It’s such a pleasure in my life since I started doing that. And when I don’t do it on the rare occasion I slip its such a drag and reminds me of my old life.

  • Almost every weekend I start working on a blog post, happen to somehow land on one of your posts James (mostly through Twitter) and about 30 minutes go by. I just finished reading Where Good Ideas Come From and it is an awesome book that essentially states what you just did.

    •  Asif, thanks so much. I will check it out. i hope you are doing well. We go way back.

  • Phil258

    I really have to say: you’re writing is awesome. Every post I read gets me motivated and makes me wanna get to work. I’ve been doing this idea habit for a little while now, and I really love it. The only downside is that I sometimes can’t go to sleep properly because my head is still racing with new ideas (luckily I keep a notepad on my nightstand so I can write those ideas before I forget them).

    Thanks for everything!

    •  Some writer wrote: the only stuff you never have to rewrite is the stuff you wake up in the middle of the night and write. I’ve been trying that lately and it works so your idea of a pad on the nightstand will work.

  • James- I just started using, its awesome so far, kudos man. Looking forward to your upcoming features and tweaks.  I’ve been using google forms for this, and TDP is waaaay easier. 

    quick TDP feedback:  on the home screen with the macro view w/ date and tasks, I would love to be able to change the date on that page and enter info.(tasks completed “Did it!)  without having to always go to the specific date page. I like the simplicity of the macro page and its much faster.    I feel always going to the specific date page is an extra step.   Just a thought….

    but again, great great job thus far. 

    •  Michael, thanks for the feedback. On your direct question, I need to work on the UR for that. clicking on the prior date will get you want you wantbut its not so clear.

      Changes that will be happening:

      A) forums are going to become Q&A like quora and I”m going to directly feed in all the questions I’ve gotten on Twitter Q&As to start it off.

      B) different defaults on the initial setup page.

      C) search, which will lead to some voyeurism (depending on eeryone’s privacy settings)

      D) gamification (leaderboard for the Q&A stuff. Badges for how many days in a row you fill stuff out, etc.

      E) some more basic tweaks.

      • I should add that we weren’t going to roll it out at all, even to alpha users. But you guys have been a great community and I think the basic functionality there is useful. I’ve been really grateful for the comments. They’ve helped improve the product immensely even well before pre-release. Thanks. 

      • what about doing multiple tasks in the same day?

        example: one of my physical goals is to run the stairs at my condo 7x a week, and I did it twice today, but I can only mark it off as done 1x for today.  Clearly, this isn’t a core tweak, haha, but just something I was hoping for in the future. 
        And I have also had an idea for an amazing site to help people with their problems and disrupt therapists (imo all they are, is someone to talk to, and they have their own biases just like everyone else, yet people sometimes feel so helpless and alone and there’s a world full of people to talk to).

         I’ve been writing out features during some of my idea days (as per your suggestion).  Perhaps in a month or two once I flesh it out a bit we could have a chat about it.   I think its something that might be up your alley as a project.  

        anyhow, let me know if there’s anything I can help you out with for :)

        have a great week!

  • Dominic

    Is it normal to come up with a list and change everything the following day?

    • Sure. Its all a practice. The idea is not to come up with a great idea THAT DAY. But to exercise your idea muscle until you “feel the  burn”. Until it actually hurts in your head to come up with a single idea. The premise is that not all of your ideas will be good. But if you do this as a consistent practice you will become an idea machine. You will be the man with the plan right when that plan is needed. because you’ve been getting ready for that moment. 

  • One guy I know of, a Japanese Inventor (he actually invented the floppy disk)..well, he swims underwater, even in his old age, and at the moment when his breath is about to run out, he jots his ideas down, underwater, with his waterproof pencil and laminated pad.  He says his ideas come from that point you experience right before death.  In his mind the most important things precipitate in his mind at that crucial point.

    I thought of a personal method I use the think creatively.  I walk into a store, maybe Wal-Mart, and I find a shelf where there is a little bit of empty space, or, I image a shelf and askmyself, what could I create right now, that would fit in this environment.  
    Its sort of reverse engineering….
    Last night I tried this, I looked at techcrunch and imagined a very frivolous app that would be needed on a friday night.  I came up with one called “Tipsy” .  When you know you are going drinking, it can be used to pay proper tips to the bartenders/cabs and maybe a few other things…

    What I really want to say is your “Everything is Allowed” brainstorming post was really, really effective.  I felt like my mind was bent and warped while reading your points, but I realized what you were doing was basically the “shelf method” . Most people got hung up on the illumanati 
    or something like that, but I realized you were painting a picture of the world and were looking for ways to then insert into the thoughtstream  

    You just took it to a whole new level.
    My thoughtstream went like this:  
    No fear, look at all these naked people. 
    Now look at the landscape
    Look at a whore following me
    Look at Alec Baldwin copying me, I must be amazing
    Greenwich, Ct, big houses, 
    education, conspiracy theories,
    Cosmopolitan (I do read that magazine to get a better picture of the world btw)

    So I guess you wanted to take all the ideas of the world and stream them, or cut them off, at some point
    Thats what i got out of it.  

    • Ben

      I love your shelf metaphor, it is really interesting, thanks for sharing. 

  • We are more ready to try the untried when what we do is inconsequential. Hence the fact that many inventions had their birth as toys. — Eric Hoffer 

    I think this quote might explain why you like waiter pads.  They seem so cheap and frivolous, there is no failing at anything when you write on a waiter pad.  When I have had nice  leather-bound Moleskin notebooks, I get to too nervous around them and never like using them. 
    Instead, I use cheap, walmart spiral notebooks like I had in the 7th grade, and try to keep it handy.  

  • Darrin S.

    I have ideas in my head quite often about musical things: songs, riffs, lyrics, variations on other peoples works, etc.  The hardest part is getting them down before they disappear.

     A friend of mine died very recently.  A few nights ago I had an idea for writing a song in his memory so I picked up my guitar and jammed for about a half an hour on this riff and chord progression that just popped into my head.  I haven’t written it down yet.  It may be gone by now.  But just doing it, pursuing the idea of it, made me feel a bit better.  

  • What a fabulous article. I will have to start apply this every day. I try to have ideas but don’t write them down!. Thank you very much!!

  • Constance Hammond

    Thanks for the article.  Although I’m in the process of making my site ( a rip-roaring success, I decided to take that free Technology Entrepreneur Class that Stanford is testing out now to get out of stuck mode.  Our first assignment as a team is to come up with 5 really good ideas and 5 really bad ideas and flush out the biz model on each.  It made me realize that even those perceived “bad” ideas have some great components.  I also like your 6 month turnaround strategy!  

  • Banonymous

    Taking some drugs (safer ones like marijuana, alcohol, or magic mushrooms) can alter one’s perspective on things and produce some pretty off the wall and creative ideas if one can Jot them down before they are forgotten. Then refine them once you become sober again.

  • luca

    great insights james, thanks

  • murali

    Great post. I look forward to reading the “reading list”. A good book is hard to find. Wasting three or four hours on a lousy book is not a good feeling.

  • Nice post. I would also had: sit every day at a café for an hour or two and watch people, what they do, what they don’t, what do they need, what do they love, what do they say, what makes them laugh? They are the ones who will eventually use your idea, well be your clients, so starting by them is a great way to find good ideas.

  • Stewart

    I have the ideas, it’s the doing that’s the problem, and god am i good at giving other people ideas…

  • Pobre Princesa Hk

    James. Although there is some things in your blog that I have heard before, the combination of all of it was really inspiring. I love the part that idea’s have sex….and I also think that surrounding yourself with supportive, like minded people is essential. Thanks for the post, check out my blog 

  • Being passionate about your company makes all the difference. I’ve started a few companies just to start one and did it too quickly while compromising on many things to get it going quickly.

    Knowing that makes you less likely to be truly passionate about your company. But it’s tough to invest everything you have in ideas you’re just experimenting with.

    But when you do get that idea that you know is rock solid. You’ve thought of it from every angle, and this is the one.

    Don’t compromise. Do everything 110%. And that will help maintain that passion and make you want to continue doing everything 110%.

    The second you stop giving it everything you possibly can will be the second your standard lowers for other aspects of your business.
    Like when you get that first dent in your car. Then the other dents aren’t as bad. But if you don’t have any dents. You try your damnedest not to get any.

  • Lawrence

    I like to think of my ideas as “Free Range” wondering around in an open field like chickens.

  • JasonC

    awesome!  Just found your site and it’s already my favourite. thanks.

  • I use to hate to be known among my friends as the idea guy. But now I thank my stars that I have that gift. One of them will b be a hit.

  • One of my favorite little tricks is to put a diver’s slate & pencil in my shower. I always find that ideas hit me there and I don’t want to lose them. This is the one I got, which is cheap and ultra basic:

  • Zach

    This post is awesome. James, I quoted you and sketched out some ideas for new genres of hip hop in a new article: Hope to have some interesting concoctions (or epic failures) to share soon borrowing from this and Choose Yourself…
    Happy New Year’s Eve!

  • Shawn Stone

    Hey apologies if this has already been asked, but is there a daily idea theme generator/list that someone has already created? At this point in time, my creativity is burned out and I like the thought of using other’s ideas to springboard from for the creation of my own daily practice lists. Thanks

  • Erik Vigneault

    James, this is one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. This first I read from you (I didn’t know you until 15 minutes ago), not the last.

  • Josh

    This has been hugely helpful in my life, so first off, thanks James.

    Some days it’s harder to come up with what to make a list about, so I started this blog to help me (and hopefully other people too):

    If anyone needs help getting started or keeping up with the habit – please check it out, and if you have ideas for “idea lists” – please send them to me so I can add them!

  • amyinnh

    The most prevalent idea factory source I come to is daily, “this is annoying, I know this can be (made) better”. I did pick one, that means much to me, and set off to solve it.

  • Rex

    you ve been doing it in 20 years, so you have like 7000 idea now?