Gathering ideas is cheap, implementing ideas is expensive. Reading a business book takes several hours over the course of a week. Starting a business takes thousands of hours over the course of years. Making ideas a reality is orders of magnitude more difficult than gathering creative ideas.
This simple fact is the reason I’m a big believer in gathering far more ideas than you can possibly implement. When the amount of effort it takes to find ideas is 10, 100 or even 1000 times less than the cost of putting it into action, it pays not to waste your time on mediocre ideas.
A High-Idea Diet
A high-idea diet involves reading and learning more than you need to know. I feel there are three main benefits you can gain from consuming more ideas than you can possibly implement.
- Only the best ideas are put into action. If you’re constantly exposed to ideas, you have the ability to pick the best ones to act on. A high-idea diet ensures you’re never left wondering what to do next.
- You become more creative. Whenever I stop reading, or my reading habits slow down, I find it more difficult to write or design. Ideas can be fodder for your own creativity, forming a foundation to build on.
- You have more energy. I get the most done when I have lots of ideas. Debating between idea gathering and idea implementation often doesn’t make sense. The more ideas you gather, the more enthusiasm you have to implement them. It isn’t a zero-sum game where you either learn more and do less, or do more and learn less. You can have both.
I should add that my version of a high-information diet, also implies a high-value of ideas in that diet. Subscribing to hundreds of blogs and skimming every post, or buying trashy novels and nonfiction books that are completely derivative works won’t get you new ideas. The amount of new, valuable ideas, not the sheer amount of information is what matters.
What About the Paradox of Choice?
The paradox of choice is that when presented with more choices, humans tend to make worse decisions. Our brains are inefficient computers, so when presented with a list of 20 or 30 choices, it can often be hard to decide which is the best option. Limitation is often the mother of creativity and too many choices can be a prison.
Although this is a valid counter-argument to a high-idea diet, I think it is misguided. Ideas aren’t just options you can choose from, they are also building blocks for more sophisticated ideas. Reading a dozen books on nutrition doesn’t need to give you a dozen different choices for dinner, it can give you a more nuanced and comprehensive view of what you eat.
Often, when you gather enough ideas, you’re best choices are actually reduced. Who has more difficulty picking a car, the person who knows everything about vehicles, or the person who looks at the hundreds of models as being all the same?
Analysis Paralysis – Do More Ideas Make You Hesitant?
Another counter-argument to a high-idea philosophy is that chronic reading will result in wasting time. This can be the case where people pour through books, never getting started because they never feel ready.
I think the real problem with analysis paralysis is fear, not too many ideas. If you doubt yourself, or you can’t imagine the risks, you won’t do anything. Reading more books has nothing to do with it.
Holistic Learning and High-Idea Dieting
The real value of ideas isn’t the substance of those ideas. It’s the connection you make between ideas that is crucial. Connections between ideas allow you to make your own ideas, specifically geared to the challenges you’re facing.
When I started to learn computer programming, I read several books on design and writing programs. Often the specific ideas in the book weren’t useful to me. I wasn’t in the same situation as the author of the book, so I couldn’t use the idea.
However, those old, unusable ideas often came back to help me. I’d end up using them in a way I had never thought of when I originally read the book. The author’s suggestions weren’t helpful, but they formed the building blocks of an idea that worked.
I think the same is true of almost any subject. Sometimes the specific ideas you read are immediately helpful, often they aren’t. But gathering them can give you new insights which can lead to even better ideas.
Reading is Scattered, Work is Focused
Since idea-gathering is cheap, I think it makes sense to read:
- In a high volume.
- Over a wide variety of unrelated subjects.
- Books that interest you (and encourage more reading) rather than books that are strictly “important”.
My philosophy towards idea gathering is the opposite of my philosophy towards work. When I’m working, implementing an idea can take days, months or even years. As a result, I focus my efforts on a few ideas I feel have promise, and I avoid hopping between pursuits I have no intention of committing to.
Ideas Don’t Always Come From Books
Books aren’t the only sources of ideas. I’d say, that the best ideas often can’t be gathered in books. Some subjects knowledge is highly codified, and reading books can form the base of your idea gathering (calculus). In other subjects you don’t have that privilege (running a business).
Books are one of the easiest sources of ideas that is often neglected, so I’ve focused on them in this article. However, any high-idea diet should include some other major consumption categories:
- People. Make friends who know things you don’t. They can often give customized advice that has ideas that focus on your specific situation.
- Experiments. Short trials can give you a direct experience that a book can’t provide. If you don’t experiment, you miss the unprintable wisdom that can’t be found in books.
- Novelty. Travel, find weird friends or join a unicycling club. Newness is a source of ideas.
I think we all know someone who reads a lot but accomplishes little. Although these people definitely exist, I think there are even more people who read little and accomplish less. A high-idea diet can push you to become the person who reads a lot, and accomplishes even more.