I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to find ideas. While everyone wants to be stricken with an idea, sometimes it’s not possible and it’s just about banging things out until something hits. In fact, some of my best ones were forced and some of my worst ones were lightning bolts (and vice versa). It’s kind of like finding a significant other via a dating app or it happening organically in real life. Sure, one generally has a more storybook kind of beginning, but at the end of the day it doesn’t invalidate love. Same goes with an idea: the lightbulb type of ideas are sexier to have, but it doesn’t always mean they’re all that great.
Hindsight is the greatest tool a creator has in their tool chest to ascertain whether they came up with the next best thing or something half baked.
Psychologically we do a lot of mental trash talking when ideating, at least I do. And its taken me time and discipline to keep the wolves at bay. Accepting ideas as they are, when they come, however raw or underdeveloped they are, is step one. It does me no good to second guess or ask for criticism initially. I also don’t erase, I just keep going. Instead of editing the core concept as I go along, I tend to duplicate the text and then change course if I think a new path is presenting itself. That way I keep the original and then have the fork as well. Later on, when I’m fresh, I can look back and see what was the better choice. At the time it’s really a crapshoot, it’s better just to keep all the ideas percolating, as it’s much easier to make a decision hours or days later when I’m over that initial burst of inspiration.
I get ideas by putting myself in the way of things that give me ideas.
Watching television or movies (unless with purpose) tends not to give me many ideas. Don’t get me wrong, I do watch a lot of movies and TV, but it usually isn’t the greatest faucet for my imagination.
Things that work for me: exercising outside is one of the best. I’m usually just going along, picking up bits of scenery or assessing interactions I’ve been having with people. Sometimes it’s a short dialogue that sticks out in my mind, or how someone reacted, or a conversation that led to a bigger thought. Lots of times I find myself on the tail end of some stream of consciousness, and an idea comes from what’s already floating around in my head.
Another great place to get struck by something is a museum, art museums are the best, although natural history or science can also do it for me. Basically any place where my mind can get lost and be contemplative, rather than being in a place where I’m watching and perceiving something passively. Whether I’m staring at a painting, sculpture, or looking through a microscope; it’s the freedom to discover correlations and values in the moment that gives me new ideas.
Something I don’t do enough but find to be a source of ideas is the opera, symphony or jazz. The show itself is usually easy enough to follow without my full attention, and I end up in a trancelike state where I’m feeling the music more than anything else. The music conjures new thoughts and more often than I like to admit I start asking big questions about the universe as a whole.
I think there are a lot of reasons these activities work for me, but I recognize they are not some catchall. Everyone’s mind is different and unlocking these ideas is really a matter of putting yourself in places where you feel inspired.
Most importantly, I make an effort to write down every single idea that enters my head, regardless of whether it’s good or bad.