To begin answering this question, one has to assume that you do not already have ideas at hand, and you have to find them somewhere. This is pretty unlikely. You probably have many ideas waiting to be explored, but you’ve concluded they don’t quite “meet the bar”. In my essay Stop Waiting for the Ripe Idea, I share a reminder I often need that ideas don’t need to be perfect in order to be ready. Before you go exploring for more ideas, take a moment to reflect on all the ones you have sitting in a note or recurring daydream. There are likely many of them waiting to be shared.
Other times, the problem isn’t perfection-seeking, but rather a lack of a foundation for ideas to come to fruition. You’re waiting for ideas, but they never seem to come.
But the ‘waiting mindset’ is part of the problem. Ideas don’t show up out of nowhere — you have to plant their seeds, and constantly tend to your own mental garden to eventually see ideas show up. You want to develop a creative pipeline so that your ideas are always coming through you. When this happens, your biggest challenge becomes channeling them effectively, rather than finding them.
So how do you build a creative pipeline, then? The way I got started was by following David Perell’s advice on writing online. I’ve been writing consistently for over a year. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve ever kept up any kind of publishing cadence so consistently for so long. The consistency of this one channel (writing) has allowed me to expand on a number of different areas.
Each piece of work in my pipeline is at a different stage, and I try to push one thing forward every day if I can. I don’t want to describe this process too formally, because it really isn’t that formal. There’s a messiness-by-design in my process, driven by a desire to embrace serendipity and playfulness rather than overly structuring my life.
You don’t need to take a course or watch a video to start your moving your pipeline forward. You just need to choose a single channel of output (for example, publishing to your blog, tweeting, a podcast, etc.) to start with. It’s best to focus on one to avoid getting overwhelmed too early.
Once you have your destination, you’re ready to start feeding it. I’ll explore three key tactics to keep your pipeline running smoothly:
- Creative Prompts
- Balanced Inputs
- Consistent Outputs
Let’s get into it!
Constantly give yourself prompts or areas that you can then explore. As you try to answer the question, you’ll be surprised how much you have to share.
- FAQs: What are questions you’ve gotten your whole life? Or, alternatively, what are the questions you wished you were asked? You don’t need other people to ask — just prompt yourself!
- Learning journeys: Areas you naturally want to learn more about can be excellent sources of creativity. Can you compress what you learned to share with others? It doesn’t have to be just about the content, it can also be about the process of learning itself.
- Lived experiences What is happening to you in your life right now? Can you observe yourself and notice anything interesting? Don’t dismiss your life as ‘uninteresting’ when others may resonate with it. The skill of observing yourself is a practice in self-awareness, and improves with practice.
- What do you wish someone else had created? A helpful article to solve your own problem, or to state a perspective you wish others would share. Proactively create the content you wish you could consume.
A lot of my best writing comes through inspiration from others. In the end, most creative work is a remix upon existing ideas. Try and expand your horizons with what sort of content you consume, but make sure it’s interesting to you.
- Consuming Books/Articles/Podcasts
- Take notes. When possible, try to spend time reading that book or article you’ve always been interested. But don’t let the learnings slip by — take notes/highlights from books/articles you consume and use those as fuel for your creativity.
- Feel free to skip. If something you’re consuming is boring you, be ruthless about dropping it. There are way too many fish in the sea to waste time on things that don’t give you energy. Plus, if you’re not excited about it, it’s very difficult to be creative about it! Instead of burning your time on something you don’t care about, go find something you do care about!
- Conversations: Learn from others, let them inspire you. Don’t dismiss conversations as merely social endeavors — each encounter can provide a new worldview, or through feedback offer an alignment on your existing one.
If all you do is consume content, you’ll never give your brain a chance to process anything. You need to create empty space in your life. The activity can be anything, but the key is not to engage your brain into thinking. Some options you can try:
- Take long walks (no podcasts, no calls)
- Meditate (even for 10 mins)
- Listen to music
This will give your mind a chance to actually process the information you’re taking in. Only then can you discover insights, which are the true gems worth sharing.
Paradoxically, the more headspace you clear, the more ideas will appear.
- Journaling: This may be one of the most important (if not the most important) writing habit I try to keep. Journaling is a great way to better understand yourself, to document the truth of your life rather than the narration of your delusions, and to provide a mechanism for gratitude practices. But most of all, I find it to be an excellent tool for storing my stream-of-thought ideas. I don’t just journal in a big session, I try to add to my journal throughout the day, every single day. This means little ideas are captured and the big ones are iterated upon constantly. Then, when it’s time to write, I’ve already got (messy, but existent) ideas to work off of. The key is to avoid starting from a blank page.
- Publishing: I publish a weekly newsletter, essays, tweets, and much more. These force me to reach deep into myself and expose the ideas (ready or not!) even when I don’t necessarily want to. You need some kind of force function, otherwise it’ll be too easy to convince yourself to keep the ideas hidden. Hidden ideas die quickly.
- Conversations: Yes, conversations are inputs as well as outputs! I try to use casual conversation as a mechanism for sharing early ideas I have on my mind. That way, the feedback loop on my ideas is constantly churning — whether it’s a call with a peer or a tweet with a friend.
There’s always more to the puzzle, but I think if you do embrace these 3 keys consistently, you’ll be off to a great start. Good luck!
P.S. This note is a response to the question “Where do you find ideas to write about?” You can also check out other questions I’ve answered in the FAQ section, or submit your own question.