Put it on the Crazy Pile: Ideas and Creativity

Tags: academia, musings

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Being an academic, I am (sort of) being paid1 to come up with new ideas about my research field, potential applications, and the future. When I was just starting out, one of my fears was that I would not be able to come up with sufficiently good ideas. All my professors had these great ideas—would I ever be at their level?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, ideation is not something that we are often being taught in academia—and some late-night conversations with my colleagues, held in hushed voices, and behind closed doors, lead me to suspect that my personal reservations about being up to the task of ‘proper’ ideation might be more widespread.

In any case, I tried to address my fears by creating a support system. I figured that it would be a good idea to keep track of my ideas in order to see whether any specific trends emerged. Lo and behold, my my Ideas.md file was born! As you might expect from the file extension, this is really just a Markdown file without any specific sectioning. Whenever I had an idea, it went in there; just a few lines, appended to be top of the file. I reckoned that after a few months, I would probably have a bunch of good ideas in there.

What I did not anticipate was how freeing the whole experience turned out to be! With the existence of Ideas.md, suddenly, I had ‘external storage,’ and for some unfathomable reason, my brain, abhorring a vacuum, started coming up with more ideas.2 Arguably, most of these ideas are probably3 not great to begin with, but the way I set up Ideas.md was tailored to prevent exactly the spur-of-the-moment judgement that I might regret later. I instead set aside a 15 minutes every month or so to go through the file, with the intent of deleting ideas that appear to ludicrous.

Following this regimen over the years has led to astonishing and unexpected results, though:

  1. I was able to synthesise a suitable research agenda from some seemingly-disconnected ideas. By revisiting the ideas after some time had passed, I was often able to express them better or even, in case of research ideas, formulate a good ‘plan of attack.’

  2. Jotting down ideas right when they occurred lowered my mental burden considerably since they stopped rattling around in my marble.

  3. I always have a new project idea ready; it might not be the precise thing that one sets out to do, but it serves as a good scientific conversation starter, in my opinion.

Why this technique works for me is probably due to the fact that I prefer finishing strands of thoughts before jumping to something else. Being able to ignore the siren song of a new shiny idea keeps me focused. I also like to know that my data are safe, and relying on the storage capabilities of my own mind seems too restrictive. Hence, having a single file that I can edit in any editor is exactly the right amount of structure for me; it is always accessible and does not require a lot of additional mental resources.

Over the years, my confidence in Ideas.md has steadily increased, and I am more than happy to keep even the craziest ideas in there. In case you are wondering: those crazy ideas come mostly in the form of associations between seemingly-unrelated concepts. I often wonder about the connections between different mathematical concepts, for instance. Recently, while having a discussion with Ernst, one of my awesome Ph.D. students, I framed some of these ideas as being ‘crazy.’ At some point in our talk, when we were coming up with other ideas, he improved upon this terminology and said ‘Ah, put it on your crazy pile.’

So, in the end, that might be an apt description of Ideas.md: my own personal crazy pile! You may want to choose another name, of course,4 but make sure to create your own crazy pile today, and you will be surprised about the benefits in the future!

  1. Not being paid well, mind you, but being paid okay↩︎

  2. I wonder whether this is an instance of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ ↩︎

  3. Accepting this is ultimately freeing. I believe that when discussing our ideas and our ideation processes, we often fall into the trap of survivorship bias. We only see the successful ideas of people that they actually realised rather than the many ones that they might have discarded. ↩︎

  4. Upon preparing this post, I found the term Spark file, and I like it so much that I will adopt it moving forward. ↩︎