How To Become A Creative Machine. The Dreamer, The Realist, and The Critic.

Every 6 months I make myself obsolete. I destroy my business and my life. I briefly want to stab an ice pick in my eye. I resist. I proceed.

This has been my path since I was in middle school. If anyone ever wanted to know my secret weapon, it’s contained in this post. Can you see it?

Most people resist having their beliefs questioned. It’s uncomfortable. Really, really, really uncomfortable. 

When you lose a major belief you feel shock. When I became convinced that there wasn’t any reason to believe in god, and that I’d been misled my entire life I was depressed. The unquestionable got questioned, and it didn’t have an answer. I lost my sense of balance for a few weeks.

If I was mistaken about that, how could I know anything? I had NO DOUBT that I was right about the whole god thing my entire upbringing. So if that was wrong, how can I be certain about history, math, science, that my friends care about me, etc.

This loss of certitude on an important topic is scary. The first time.

The second time it’s annoying. The third time it’s frustrating. The fourth time it’s scary again. Repeat.

After the first few times you learn that the new unknown in which you find yourself post-belief isn’t so dangerous or scary. This is what being a human is. I think you become a better person after you’ve lost a lot of belief. The less people believe, the less damage they tend to do. You have to really have an opinion to kill someone.

But why are we talking about beliefs? Oh yes. I make myself obsolete every 6 months. I ruin it all. This keeps happening. It’s excellent. Every 6 months or so a “new idea” comes along that completely changes the paradigm.

It’s like I’m climbing steps, one step every 6 months. Except while I’m at a particular step I can’t see the next step or even know that it’s there. Then it hits me, the idea, the next step. Then, from the new superior position of the next step I look back on the previous step with judgmental eyes, “stupid low step.” This is a flaw that I am working on.

I like the following simile also. “Being an entrepreneur is like driving down a road on a foggy night. You can only see a few feet ahead of you at any point, but if you keep your head down and focus on what’s around you, you can drive all the way to the end.” Or something like that.

6 months is a long time. The following is the process I use to be a creativity machine. I have a wealth of ideas. A war chest if you will. If all of the ones I’m currently working on flop tomorrow, I’ll just pull out one of the other ones and work on it. Or I’ll make new ones. As long as you have ideas, and lots of them, you win. Truly great ideas will force you to execute them. They aren’t optional.

How To Make Great Ideas…

Section 1: Raw Materials

1a. Expose yourself to lots of different things. Varied input. Intense realism. Go to places you aren’t familiar with, do things you haven’t done. Read books, magazines, and websites on lots of different topics. Watch things that amaze you.

1b. Write down at least 10 ideas, every day. EVERY DAY. This advice from James Altucher is indispensable. You have to exercise your idea muscle or else it atrophies, quickly.

1c. Make your ideas have “idea sex” with each other.

When you feel you’ve found a good idea. Add it to the list. What list? The list of possibly good ideas you’ve had. Take different ideas and smash them together (idea sex) to see what is produced. Just see how you could combine idea A with idea B to make idea C. This leads to some epic and hilarious ideas, some of them quite good.

1d. Write. When you write, you get more ideas. Keep a journal for yourself. Write morning pages. Blog. Write long thoughts on Facebook. It can be public or private, fiction or non fiction, good or bad. Just fucking write.

Section 2: Fabrication

This technique comes from Walt Disney, a man known for being somewhat creative.

Brilliance is forged, it doesn’t just pop into your head. That’s the myth people think. That one idea, one random day, changed someone’s life. One idea, one random day can alter things. But “great ideas” are a collection of 1,000s or more of little good ideas put into their necessary places.

The Dreamer, The Realist, & The Critic.

Take your potentially good idea and run it through the DRC process.

2A. The Dreamer.

First, give it to the dreamer to play around with. The dreamer is you. The dreamer can, without restriction, imagine the idea to be as big and grand and as amazing as possible. If the dreamer gets excited, really excited, don’t worry. The dreamer usually does this. Just because the dreamer is excited doesn’t mean you have a good idea.

But, the dreamer is essential. Without the dreamer things are boring, no one cares about boring things.

The dreamer has no limitations. Physical, geographic, financial, whatever. The dreamer doesn’t have to consider anything. Pure unbridled creative imagination. Imagine the perfection.

Once the dreamer has dreamed their little heart out and is spent, take the now dreamed up idea and give it to the realist.

2B. The Realist:

The realist is king. But, his job is to take what reality is and model the dreamed idea to it. It’s not to debate with the dreamer about “what’s realistic”. The realists job is requirements gathering.

“What would it take to pull this off? What resources are needed? What resources are had? What time frame would be necessary? Who can we involve? What is missing? What don’t we know? What questions should we ask?”

The realist builds the plan. The realist creates the schedule. The realist determines first steps. The realist abandons the idea if it’s not good and just sounds nice.

The realist wants to see everything. Never be caught off guard. Spending plans down to the penny. Pros and Cons lists. SWOT analysis. It gets boring, but the extra work up front on an idea will prevent a lot of pain from trying to execute on a poorly thought out idea. It’s better to suffer for an afternoon with a calculator on day 1, than recognize 2 years in that you have a business model that can’t be solvent.

Once the realist is satisfied he sends it back to the dreamer for approval. If the dreamer doesn’t approve, the dreamer can re-dream and send it back to the realist for approval.

The dreamer is the one that has to approve every first draft. If it’s not excited enough about something, it doesn’t make it out of the dreamer’s lab. Then it has to pass the realist. The dreamer and the realist are in a constant battle (like Michael Scott & HR). But they’re on the same team.

Once the dreamer and realist both OK an idea, it goes onto the critic.

2C. The Critic

The critic is really annoying. Sorry. The critic is an asshole. The critic is ruthless. It’s only purpose is to poke holes in the carefully crafted plan of the dreamer and the realist. It wants to make them look silly and prevent them from doing anything stupid. It’s way too cautious and pessimistic.

The critic cannot pull any punches, it has to be mean. It has to expose every possible flaw. Everything the dreamer and the realist aren’t seeing. It has to see the dangers they’ve missed. It has to point out their weaknesses and their limitations. It has to hurt their feelings.

When the critic has thoroughly ripped up the idea and demoralized everyone the idea goes back to the realist. The realist needs to determine where the critic is right and what plans need changing. When it does, it sends the new updated plan back to the dreamer who must approve.

You can mix up the order if you want, it doesn’t matter except for efficiency. The outcome is simple: Get a YES from all 3 reporting centers. All 3 need to believe in the idea.

At the end of this process, providing you are not a complete dunce. You will have a good idea. Even if objectively it isn’t a good idea, it will be “good enough.” It will be the best you are capable of today and that’s all you can ask from yourself.

The dreamer should be excited, really vibrating. The realist should be securely confident in the efficacy of the idea. The critic should be willing to approve because its arguments have been successfully addressed.

Phase 3: Execution

When you find a sufficiently good idea, you owe it to the world to deliver it.

I try to give all of my best ideas away for free. I don’t have time to work on all of them. Hoarding ideas for an unspecified future where you might have time to work on them is lame. Give them away.

But give them away to people that you think might benefit from using them. People that like ideas, people that need ideas. Low level employees don’t often benefit from ideas and find them annoying. So don’t share them with those people.

Share them with people that are already executing. Share them with businesses. Charge for them if you need money, or just give them away and charge for something else.

If you want to do it yourself, do it. Right now.

The good idea becomes great only by delivering it. Then you get feedback, then you iterate, then you launch the next version of it. The grand idea you began with will spread, it will recreate itself, it will suck up ideas from other sources, and it will birth its own ideas along the way. It’s a living thing.

If you properly did the dreamer, realist, critic exercise you should find yourself with an idea that is begging to be executed. You’ll feel deep confidence and belief in the idea, because you know it’s well thought out. You’ll feel obligated to do it and it will be easy to get started.

Maybe your first 10 ideas to come out of this process will still be weak. The more you do it, the stronger the ideas will get. I’ve spent 1-2 hours running certain ideas through the D,R,C process, on other ideas I’ve spent several full days. I expect some day I will spend months, once I’m smart enough.

Rule: Don’t do bad ideas.

I see a lot of people cause themselves a lot of pain with bad ideas. They get an idea, start acting on it, and intend to “figure things out as they go.” I did this a lot. It hurt.

Bad ideas sound like good ideas at the time. That’s how they get you.

Now I do the process I’ve outlined in this post. For every idea I’m serious about spending time on (or just as practice). Even on things that I know nothing about and have no resources in, I can come up with a plan that at least discovers potential first steps. Then I make those steps and get results. If they were the wrong first steps, I go back to the plan and work on it more.

It’s a constant process. I’m always asking, “what don’t I know? What am I missing? What would someone with experience with this think? Where can I find someone with experience? What questions should I ask them? (note: you should always ask the expert what questions you should ask them no matter what, but ask your own questions also.) What’s the next step? What is the logical conclusion of this? What are the first principles?

When you skip this and “figure it out along the way” you become the blind leading blind and every painful realization will come later, and at greater cost than was necessary. Also, the lazy attitude that won’t really think through an idea isn’t the one that’s going to execute it properly.

Bad ideas, led to their logical conclusion, = pain and resentment.

If you can’t defend your idea to yourself, or your friends, or your customers you shouldn’t do it. You’ll be too scared and you’ll self sabotage. You’ll spend a lot of time working on unimportant things to feel busy. And you’ll keep emailing me and asking for advice. No one will be able to help (because you can’t make bad ideas good) and you’ll hate the world.

I spent a lot of time working on bad ideas, waiting for them to grow. There is no nobility in suffering through a bad idea. Cut it out like a weed, let it die no matter what the cost, and come up with new ideas.

And then you’re free.

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