Become An Idea Machine With The "Idea Evolution" Mental Model
Thanks for all of the feedback yesterday in the comments. Based on what I heard, I’m going to experiment with 1-2 short posts per week that capture a profound idea in a memorable way you can carry with you and chew on.
Today’s post is personal. Growing up, I would come across authors who had their career made by just one big idea. So, I started looking into how I could find my own. Instead of idea nirvana, I ended up being perpetually frustrated by generic advice that left me with more questions than answers.
Some expert would inevitably say, “Ok. First, you have to find an amazing idea! Then you have to…”
They’d quickly move on to step #2 without actually sharing how to find a big idea. My question was always, “Where are all these big ideas that I can just easily get?”
So I went on a quest to better understand where great ideas come from, and this post is the synthesis of everything I learned.
This TED Talk Shows The Risk Of Doing Things From Scratch
Source: Full TED Talk (11 min)
This Video Holds An Important Lesson For All Thought Leaders
In this TED Talk, Thomas Thwaites recounts the year he spent building a toaster from scratch.
The effort is impressive.
The results aren’t.
But, through it all, he teaches a fundamental lesson that I haven’t forgotten in over a decade.
This video beautifully demonstrates how dependent we are on humanity’s collective knowledge to build anything.
Even a cheap toaster is the synthesis of hundreds of insights in several fields over hundreds of years (if not thousands).
When it comes to physical products, we don’t try to create things from scratch. We know better. So when we want a phone, we don’t attempt to smelt iron. When we want clothing, we don’t go to a farm to sheer sheep. And when product creators want to build something original, they start by building on top of what has been built before like, Thomas Edison:
When I want to discover something, I begin by reading everything that has been done along that line in the past… I see what has been accomplished at great labor and expense in the past. I gather data of many thousands of experiments as a starting point, and then I make thousands more.
Yet, when it comes to the ephemeral world of ideas, most people lose perspective.
Most aspiring thought leaders forget that ideas are no different than physical products. Almost every idea we use is the combination of many insights from many people over a long period of time.
Therefore, we shouldn’t just invent ideas from scratch, because it’s a waste of time. Rather we should learn the best of what has already been figured out and then build on that.
Since most aspiring thought leaders miss this, they don’t build on adjacent and historical insights. As a result, social media is flooded with mediocre hot takes of people thinking they are original when they’re not.
When I internalized the lesson of the toaster as a thought leader, I decided to spend 80% of my “writing” time on research.
All of this context introduces us to one of the most fundamental mental models for thought leaders that I use every single day…
Introducing The Idea Evolution Mental Model
Many would-be thought leaders sit around and try to create big ideas by hoping for an extraordinary insight simply by writing out their thoughts.
This is like immaculate conception. It’s like a woman who isn’t pregnant trying to have a baby by pushing.
Ideas actually arrive through a process that is akin to evolution:
Collect lots of diverse knowledge units (research)
Mix and match those units (thinking)
Experiment to see which combos work (testing)
Package the best combos in interesting ways (packaging)
Other people’s ideas that seem to be huge leaps forward to us are ALWAYS the result of small hunches developed over a long period of time.
Implication: The power of the idea evolution is backed up by tons of research and case studies (links in this article). And, when you apply it to your idea production process, it completely changes how you spend your time as a thought leader.
Today’s Game Plan
Hundreds Of Hours Of Research Uncovered The Idea Evolution Mental Model. I share the specific books, articles, and academic papers that helped me understand the idea evolution mental model.
Countless Cases Of Idea Evolution. I share quotes from many of the greatest thinkers in history swearing by the power of idea evolution. Before adopting something new, it’s valuable to see how widely beneficial it is.
The Idea Evolution Workflow (paid subscribers only). I share the specifics of how I completely reinvented my workflow based on the idea evolution mental model.
Hundreds Of Hours Of Research Uncovered The Idea Evolution Mental Model
I started talking about the research behind idea evolution in Tutorial: How To Package Other People's Video Clips So They Go Viral And People Pay For Them. In this post, I go deeper.
Once I saw the power of idea evolution, I started seeing it everywhere.
I saw it in many books, academic papers, and articles I was reading on creativity. Some ones that come to mind include:
The Diversity Bonus by researcher Scott Page
The Formula by researcher Albert-Lazlo Barabasi
Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity by Maria Popova
The Role of Luck in Creative Career Success by researcher Milan Janosov
Creative combination of representations: Scientific discovery and technological invention by researcher Paul Thagard
The Medici Effect by Frans Johansson
Decoding Greatness by Ron Friedman
And I saw the mental model among greatest thinkers in history from mathematicians to economists to philosophers to entrepreneurs to technology researchers to futurists…
Countless Cases Of Idea Evolution
I share all of the quotes below from famous thinkers so you can see the extent to which the idea evolution is embedded in many different fields. These individuals aren’t outliers with a unique approach. Rather they are the norm of how creativity actually works.
Combinatorial creativity in mathematics
It is obvious that invention or discovery, be it in mathematics or anywhere else, takes place by combining ideas.
—Jacques Hadamard, Mathematician
Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.
—Henri Poincaré, Mathematician
Combinatorial creativity in economics
Improvements in machinery [result from in part] combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects.
To produce means to combine the things and forces within our reach.
New technologies are never created from nothing. They are constructed – put together – from components that previously exist; and in turn these new technologies offer themselves as possible components – building blocks – for the construction of further new technologies.
—Economists Brian Arthur & Wolgang Polak
Combinatorial creativity in invention
90 percent of inventions combine at least two codes, showing that invention is increasingly a combinatorial process.
—Dashun Wang & Albert-László Barabasi in Science Of Science
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.
Invention finds its distinctive feature in the constructive assimilation of preexisting elements into new syntheses, new patterns, or new configurations of behavior.
—Abbott Payson, Researcher, History Of Mechanical Invention
The great driver of scientific and technological innovation [in the last 600 years has been] the increase in our ability to reach out and exchange ideas with other people, and to borrow other people’s hunches and combine them with our hunches and turn them into something new., author of Where Good Ideas Come From
Combinatorial creativity in other fields
Combinatorial play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.
The philosopher must form a new combination of ideas concerning the combination of ideas.
—Jacques Derrida, Philosopher
Each new machine or technique, in a sense, changes all existing machines and techniques, by permitting us to put them together into new combinations. The number of possible combinations rises exponentially as the number of new machines or techniques rises arithmetically. Indeed, each new combination may, itself, be regarded as a new super-machine.
—Alvin Toffler, Futurist
In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.
—Vera John-Steiner, Psycholinguist
Combinatorial creativity in the arts
Don’t be so all-fired concerned about being original. You hear an old song you like but you’d like to change a little, there’s no crime in changing a little…
It’s a process. It’s not any particular song, it’s not any particular singer. It’s a process by which ordinary people take over old songs and make them their own.
—Pete Seeger, Singer, in Songwriters On Songwriting
Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.
—Mark Twain, Writer
Even the most original song you can think of is liable to have a good deal of tradition in it. After all, the major scale and the minor scale were invented thousands of years ago… And the English language was invented a long time ago, and the phrases that we use. And we’re just rearranging these ancient elements.
—Virginia Woolf, Writer
Combinatorial creativity from creativity thinkers
Ideas, like species, naturally evolve over time. Existing concepts are altered and combined to construct new concepts; the way geometry, trigonometry, and algebra combine to form calculus.
—David Kord Murray, Borrowing Brilliance
The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements. The second important principle is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
—James Webb Young (legendary creative in the advertising field)
Nothing is completely original. All artists’ work builds on what came before. Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of two previous ideas., Author of Steal Like An Artist
You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.
—Twyla Tharp, Dancer, Choreographer, Author
Now that you understand how ubiquitous idea evolution is, let’s explore how powerful it is. When you fully assimilate the implications of the mental model, you completely restructure your process for producing ideas.
Below is the workflow that I’ve refined over the years based on the idea evolution mental model…
The Idea Evolution Workflow (For Paid Subscribers)
Research the best of what humanity has figured out so you can stand on the shoulders of giants
Collect diverse knowledge so you can make combinations no one else can
Build a memory system so you can automatically combine things in your head forever
Build a comprehensive notes system so you can cite quotes years later
Generate endless ideas via combinatorial creativity
Experiment with and then select ideas that can make your career
Package your ideas so they grab attention and spread virally
#1: Research the best of what humanity has figured out so you can stand on the shoulders of giants
There aren’t original ideas. There are people who just haven’t read widely enough.
Originality is undetected plagiarism.
—William Inge, author
When I understood that my ideas were downstream of other people’s knowledge, I became very deliberate with my learning on a few levels:
I very deliberately collected the most foundational, long-lasting building blocks of knowledge—mental models. To date, I’ve spent years collecting the 50 most universal, timeless, and useful mental models and creating 10,000-word mastery manuals on them as part of my Mental Model Club.
I studied learning how to learn so I could research faster and better. You can take my free mini-course on learning how to learn on the 5-Hour Rule website.
I devoted a lot of time to research. More specifically, for 8+ years I have spent 3-4 hours per day learning, and I have spent 80% of my article creation time on research.
A few things about idea evolution got me particularly excited about learning more once I understood their implications.
As my number of knowledge building blocks (ie - legos) increases linearly, the potential combinations increased exponentially…
When you play out this curve, the possible combinations get huge…
And when you zoom in to the end of the curve, you see that nearly all of the combinations come at the end, not the beginning. Therefore, putting in those extra hours of learning can make a surprisingly large impact…
I also saw that as I collected more knowledge building blocks, I could actually come up with more complex ideas that synthesized more building blocks. In other words, rather than just writing articles on hacks and habits, I could write articles on paradigmatic shifts and explore their implications into the future across many fields.
In other words, using the visual below, at first I could only come up with very simple ideas (ie, A, B, C). But as I collected more building blocks, I could build a taller mountain of ideas. More specifically, for every building block I added, I could add one layer more of complexity to the ideas I could develop (ie, ABCD rather than just A).