On the origin of ideas – reflecting on what I’ve learned

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In my regular milestones posts and in other pieces on this blog, I’ve written about the various lessons I have learned and observations made since leaving the workplace. The latest of these is the realization that recently, a number of new ideas have been emerging from the recesses of my brain. I’ve found this to be particularly so in the course of exploring new hobbies and experiences. What is the genesis of these ideas and how does that apply to my search for “what to do next”? Read on to learn more! I believe you will learn that you can apply similar strategies in your own life.

You can’t rush the creative process

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Two Sides of FI project or the ChooseFI livestream event, you already know something about my good friend, Eric. I’ve know the guy for 35 years at this point, so we talk really candidly. In one of our recent conversations, we spoke about the origin of ideas for new endeavors or business opportunities. The context of this was my frustration with figuring out “what to do next”. I took a lot from that chat, including the idea that you often need to explore a variety of things before the “great idea” emerges. In other words, only by taking the time needed to try out a number of interests, hobbies, and concepts, you create the opportunity for that truly great idea to emerge. He relayed this concept using his own experiences with starting up his architecture practice and his very successful YouTube channel.

I understood what he meant as it reminded me of my own experiences working in the lab as a scientist. Sometimes you had to try (and fail) with a number of different avenues before inspiration came to go in a (sometimes totally) different direction to resolve the question at hand. So it made sense on the surface but I hadn’t yet had a similar experience when it came to what to do next in this new phase of my life. While I had been thoroughly enjoying spending my time how I saw fit, I hadn’t yet found my great idea. Eric reminded me that this was totally OK! His own experience had taught him well that you can’t rush the creative process. Sometimes you need to try a variety of things, digesting what you’ve learned, and only then will the idea emerge.

What he said was of course totally reasonable! Admittedly, I’m a rather impatient person. Talking with him, I realized how much pressure I’d been putting on myself to figure out “what to do next”. When you think about it, that’s both silly and counterproductive! Unlike in my deadline-driven work life, where priorities were set by others, I am in blue skies territory here. There is no pressure to produce something or to achieve a specific goal, and certainly no deadline. My wife, Lorri has also been great about pointing this out to me regularly. Maybe it’s just my natural inclination, or simply a reaction to all the questions I get from friends and former colleagues? No matter the origin, the good news is that I’m learning. I realize that ideas cannot be forced and there is no pressure to do so. Ideas come on their own schedule and that’s just fine! So what are some ways I’ve found that help yield new ideas?

Generating new ideas requires a variety of mechanisms

One of the realizations I’ve had is that at least for me, ideas originate from a variety of sources – and often from a combination of the same. I’ve determined that there are three primary sources of late that are facilitating idea generation. Described simply, these are thinking, doing, and sharing. That all sounds pretty obvious of course, so what do I mean?

“Thinking” is the most obvious, I suppose. Simply taking the time to ruminate is certainly a wise approach to generate and explore ideas. I’ve always been someone that spends a lot of time in thought. But a very big difference that I’ve noticed in recent months is when and how I think. Without my former work schedule, my daily calendar has ample opportunity for concerted thought – not just handfuls of stolen minutes here and there. I’ve found that rather than getting right out of bed and starting my day each morning, I now tend to lie there 20-30 minutes just quietly thinking about an assortment of things. In addition, I’ve noticed that I’m taking more concerted effort to think without distraction. Particularly for creative and more abstract endeavors – I’ve definitely found this with app development, uninterrupted thought is vital. I’ve now realized how insufficient the time I gave to this task was while I was still working. I suspect I could have been much more productive had I been better about blocking time for thought, vs. checking off more tasks on that day’s to-do list.

“Doing” is something I’ve addressed often on this blog. Since leaving my career, I’m spending at least several hours each day pursuing my passions – in recent months this largely means iOS app development. I’ve realized a few things in the course of this pursuit that have made my “doing” much more productive. First, in treating this more seriously than merely a hobby ( as I’d done in the past), I’ve advanced in my abilities more quickly – not too surprising. I have also been good about pushing myself to work through problems, rather than set them aside because I had other things to do. Admittedly at times this has meant I’ve gotten behind on tasks around the house. It’s been well worth it though! Taking another piece of advice from Eric, I’ve realized I need to really prioritize my “making” vs. “managing” time. Most importantly, being more intentional in my doing has been a tremendous source of new ideas. I’m finding a greater ability to think creatively than I had been earlier on in learning these new skills. Several times I’ve even woken up with a new idea on how to solve a problem that I’d struggled with the day prior – or for a new app!

Lastly, I’ve learned a lot from “sharing”. Historically I’ve not been one to air my ideas on potential new pursuits with others without really thinking through them first – if at all. At least some of that was surely due to a fear of vulnerability. But what I now find is that I’m much more willing to discuss these ideas with Lorri, good friends like Eric, or even on social media with people I don’t know well, if at all. Unlike with my “old job”, there is no pressure relating to perception, or expectations based on my job level, etc. This openness has proven really productive for me. Sometimes it has helped me refine an existing idea. Other times, this dialogue has yielded a totally new idea. In fact, just this morning I woke up with a new business concept as a result of a conversation I had last night at Zoom Happy Hour with my college friends! Perhaps you’ll get to hear more about that before too long? ?

Wrapping things up

Idea generation is a vital part of many things, including the search for one’s next opportunity. While I know there is no pressure to do so on a given schedule – if at all, I am excited by the concept of coming up with something fun, interesting, and fulfilling. This might originate directly from one of the areas I’m already exploring, or be something totally different. In any case, I feel like I’m now arming myself with far better tools to generate those ideas.

If there’s one truth about retiring from the only career you’ve known, it’s that it produces an opportunity like no other to learn about yourself. It’s been a fascinating eight month journey so far, and I remain thankful to have this experience. No matter what comes next for me, I am sure it will teach me even more valuable lessons. Onward we go!

P.S. -For those who picked up on the title’s nod to Charles Darwin’s master work, bravo! If you haven’t read On The Origin of Species, I’d highly recommend it! There’s even a picture book version, apparently. How cool is that?

image credit: “Find the idea” by khalid Albaih is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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