The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine

If you’re broke and close to death, you have to start coming up with ideas. If you destroy your life, you need to come up with ideas to rebuild it. 

The only time I’ve been forced to have good ideas is when I was up against the wall. My life insurance policy was like a gun to my head:  “Come up with good ideas… or else your kids get your life insurance!”

The problem is this: you’re not in a state of panic most of the time. States of panic are special and have to be revered. Think about the times in your life that you remember – it’s exactly those moments when you hit bottom and were forced to come up with ideas, to get stronger.

This is why it’s important now to strengthen that connection to that idea force inside of you. This post is about how.

Nothing you ever thought of before amounted to anything – that’s why you are exactly where you are at that moment of hitting bottom. Because all of your billions of thoughts have led you to right there. You can’t trust the old style of thinking anymore. They came, they saw, they lost.

You have to come up with a new way of thinking. A new way of having ideas.

People know what “runner’s high” is. It’s when you are running for a long time, at the point of exhaustion, and then something kicks in and gives you a “second wind”.

400,000 years ago people didn’t jog for exercise.

400,000 years ago people needed to eat and live. Either you were running to catch a prey, or you were running because you were the prey! In both cases you needed that second wind or you would die.

The same thing happens in the brain. When you are about to die, a second wind kicks in.

But you can’t get runner’s high unless you’re already in good shape.

This is why it’s important to exercise the idea muscle right now. If your idea muscle atrophies, then even at your lowest point you won’t have any ideas.

Many people need idea therapy. Not so that they can come up with great ideas right this second (although maybe you will) but so that people can come up with ideas when they need them: when their car is stuck, when their house blows up, when they are fired from their job, when their spouse betrays them, when they go bankrupt or lose a big customer, or lose a client, or go out of business, or get sick.

Ideas are the currency of life. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke.  But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

I get a lot of questions like, “did you only start coming up with ideas because you already had it made?

Answer: I was on the floor crying because I was dead broke and dead lonely and had no prospects so that’s why I had to do it.

The below is what I do and what works for me. If you have anything to add, please add them in the comments, I need all the help I can get.

A) What do You Mean – “Idea Machine”?

You will be like a superhero. Every situation you are in, you will have a ton of ideas. Any question you are asked, you will know the response. Every meeting you are at, you will take the meeting so far out of the box you’ll be on another planet, if you are stuck on a desert highway – you will figure the way out, if you need to make money you’ll come up with 50 ideas to make money, and so on.

Maybe you think it’s bragging. There are many times when I don’t have ideas. But that’s when I stop practicing what I am about to advocate.

Try it for yourself. I’m not selling anything here. I have no reason for you to try this. I just want to share my experience.

B) How do I Start Exercising the Idea Muscle? 

Take a waiter’s pad. Go to a local cafe. Maybe read an inspirational book for ten to twenty minutes. Then start writing down ideas. What ideas? Hold on a second. The key here is, write ten ideas.

C) Why a Waiter’s Pad?

A waiter’s pad fits in your pocket so you can easily pull it out to jot things down.

A waiter’s pad is too small to write a whole novel or even a paragraph.  In fact, it’s specifically made to make a list. And that’s all you want, a list of ideas.

D) Why Ten Ideas? 

If I say, “write down ten ideas for books you can write” I bet you can easily write down four or five. I can write down four or five right now.  But at six it starts to get hard. “Hmmm,” you think, “what else can I come up with?”

This is when the brain is sweating. Break through this and come up with ten ideas. You can do it.

E) What if I Just Can’t Come Up With Ten Ideas? 

Here’s the magic trick: if you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20 ideas.

F) But if I Can’t Come Up With Ten, How am I Supposed to Come Up With 20? 

For the obvious reason – You are putting too much pressure on yourself.  Perfectionism is the enemy of the idea muscle. Perfectionism is your brain trying to protect you from harm. From coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain.

We like the brain. But you have to shut the brain off to come up with ideas.

The way you shut the brain off is by forcing it to come up with bad ideas.

So let’s say you’ve written 5 ideas for books and they are all pretty good. And now you are stuck. “How can I top this brilliant list of five?”

Well, let’s come up with some bad ideas. Here’s one:  “Dorothy and the Wizard of Wall Street”. Dorothy is in a hurricane in Kansas and she lands right at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street in NYC and she has to make her way all the way down Wall Street in order to find “The Wizard of Wall Street” (Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs) in order to get home to Kansas. Instead, he offers her a job to be a high frequency trader instead.

What a bad idea! Ok, now go onto the next 15 ideas.

G) How do I Know if an Idea is a Good Idea? 

You won’t. You don’t. You can’t. You shouldn’t.

Let’s say you come up with ten ideas a day. In a year you will have come up with 3650 ideas (no breaks on weekends by the way if you want to get good at this). Maybe more if you are trying to do 20 ideas a day.

It’s unlikely that you came up with 3,650 good ideas (after you become an idea machine your ratio goes up but probably in the beginning your ratio of bad ideas to good is around 1000:1).

Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with good ideas. The key right now is just to have good ideas.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. But practice makes permanent. So that later on when you do need good ideas to save your life, you know you will be a fountain of them.

H) How do I Execute on my Idea? 

Here’s what I do often when I am writing down ideas that I think I might want to act on.

I divide my paper into two columns.

On one column is the list of ideas. On the other column is the list of  “first steps”. Remember, only the first step. Because you have no idea where that first step will take you.

Imagine you are driving 100 miles to your home late at night. You turn on your headlights so you  can see in front of you. All you can see is about 30 feet in front of  you but you know if you have the lights on the entire time, you’ll make  it home safely, 100 miles away.

Activating the idea machine is how you turn the lights on so you can get home. But you don’t need to do any more than that.

One of my favorite examples: Richard Branson didn’t like the service on  some airline he was flying. So he had an idea: I’m going to start a new  airline. How the heck can a magazine publisher start an airline from  scratch with no money?

His first step. He called Boeing to see if they had an airplane he could lease.

No idea is so big you can’t take the first step. If the first step seems too hard, make it simpler. And don’t worry again if the idea is bad. This is all practice.

I) But if I’m Coming Up With Business Ideas, How do I Know if I’m on the Right Track? 

There’s no way to know in advance if a business idea is a good one. You have to try multiple ideas and see which ones get the excitement of customers, employees, and you can see that people are legitimately using it and excited by it.

In Part 2 of this essay I’ll give some examples and we’ll continue this quest to becoming an idea machine.

If you have any ideas of your own on how to come up with good ideas, please share them in the comments.

[Ed Note: James is the host of the #1 business podcast, The James Altucher Show. In the incredible first episode, James interviews a man that essentially reinvented the book-publishing industry. After writing a book and receiving hundreds of rejection notices, this man changed the rules and has since sold nearly 3 million copies of his book and he’s also made a lot of money. You don’t want to miss what he had to say. The easiest way to listen is to subscribe to his podcast through iTunes. Click here to listen.]

  • Barry

    When I am stuck, I look at other success stories in my situation and apply what they are doing to my life. Instead of always relying upon the imagination machine, I can sort of create a new idea by taking inspiration from elsewhere.

  • Zarayna Pradyer

    After much thought and self congratulations, I share my brilliant idea with someone I respect and assume will be impressed with my offering. Invariably, they dismiss it or point out its illogicality or redundancy. But interestingly, after recovering from that blow, my desperate mind will burble up with more and maybe better ideas which I guess is what you are saying: desperation is the mother of invention.

  • Anthony

    Hi James,
    On the flip side, what habits/rituals do you carry out and recommend to slow down ones ideas machine – so one can sleep well every night?

  • Anthony

    Cheers, Craig.
    Read your link article; like you say, it’s a discipline to have a ” switch off” routine – and to use it. But, (after just 3 hours sleep…oh the irony;) if you are living fully and growing/breaking new ground, every now and then one may find oneself with raised cortisol levels and a lack of sleep…fine every now and then, and much better than the alternative – a boring, ordinary life.
    Cheers, time to do some chin ups. 🙂
    P.S. Horizontal bars on CB dashboard growing rapidly 😉

  • Socrates

    Research the most successful ( which leads to multi,multi or billionaire status) – you will find orphans ( Abramovich- Chelsea owner ), high school dropouts, grade 5,6,7 8 education drop outs, homeless ( Ceaser Milan ) and Chris Gardner ( Pursuit of Happyness) etc. you will FIND NONE OF THESE PEOPLE HAD ANY GOALS OR PLANS. They just took the first step expecting somehow the next will be reveled. They had no goal to be a Dog Whisperer or the # 1 stock broker ( Gardner ) from being homeless. They were just surviving and taking the next step and see what happens…taking the road less travelled.

    You must reach zero or be at zero to reach these heights….this is how the universe works ( you can call it god, karma, whatever ). When you there you have nothing to lose and ALL to gain. You not afraid of failure. If you have failed and failed many times, you must pick yourself up and continue…trusting in your gut or karma or whatever it will all work out. ” The dots always connect looking backwards NEVER forwards” so said Steve Jobs and infered- goals, goal planning, planning, where I want to be in 5 years bs will never get you there.

    In short…Messi does not go into a soccer game saying I have a goal to score 5 goals….just does not do it. He plays his best and see what happens and does it again the next time.

    Think laterally not logically. And spend 10,000 hours + on one passion or interest and you will be no.1 or 2 or 3 in the world. Do it, trust it and it will happen. Don’t sets goals or plans…action is all you need.

  • Socrates

    The secret to happiness, in life and in business. I knew the Oakland, California subway station Gardner had slept in because I passed it each day on my train trip intoSan Francisco. I had plenty of time to contemplate the advice he gave, words that changed the course of my career. “How did you find the strength, the spirit, to keep going?” I asked Gardner. “Carmine, here’s the secret to success: find something you love to do so much, you can’t wait for the sun to rise to do it all over again.”

    Simple Watson….very simple. Trust in yourself and be passionate in your passion. Chase beautiful work, endeavour and be honest and true and it will all work out. Oh Yes…” Don’t give up…so you can do the 10,000 hours!”

  • superbadkitty

    When I have a good idea, it’s usually when I’m in the creative zone. To get into the zone means shutting off anything or anyone who requires my time or attention. I shut off for 30 mins to an hour and go somewhere I’m not disturbed and just do anything I want…dream, doodle (especially doodle!), paint, sew, knit, listen to music, sing, dance… I get the best ideas when I’m in this zone. Sometimes the brain still works on new ideas hours or days after you get out of the zone.