How to Come Up With Ideas

Dear friend,

I wanted to write you an essay on how I come up with ideas.

1. Read old books

As a blogger, I’m always trying to come up with new ideas. Let me share some personal techniques, which might or might not work for you.

First of all, I read a lot. I prefer to read what is older. I believe that the older the text, the longer it will survive, and the more relevant it is to today’s society.

For example, a book that was published a year ago, might live for another year. But a book published 2,000 years ago — probably has a chance of existing another 2,000 years. I learned this ‘Lindy Effect’ from Nassim Taleb, in his book ‘Antifragile.’

Therefore, ideas that have existed for a long time probably have been around for good reason. People who saved that information found it valuable and useful enough to preserve.

I don’t remember anything I learned from any book written in the last 5-10 years, except ‘Antifragile’ from Nassim Taleb, and ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. I’ve read at least 50 books that have been written in the last 5-10 years, and I remember no quotes or anything from them.

Yet for me, the wisdom that always sticks with me is from the past. I have re-read Seneca’s Letters (Letters From a Stoic) at least 10 times, front-to-back, in its entirety. I’ve re-read Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ at least 8 times. I’ve re-read the Enchiridion and Golden Sayings of Epictetus at least 5 times. I’ve re-read the sayings and teachings of Jesus (ever since I was a kid, and even now). I re-read the Tao Te Ching at least 10 times.

The best hack for coming up with ideas is to re-read what has moved you in the past. The reason is that by re-reading a book is this: you really let the ideas permeate and soak into your soul and mind.

I don’t even need to re-read The Meditations or Letters from Seneca to remember most of it. I can quote them off the top of my head, without consulting my notes. And not only that, I have integrated their words into my actions and deeds.

And generally what I will do is when I think of one of their ideas, I borrow their ideas, and re-mix their ideas in my own flavor.

I don’t believe any idea is original. All good ideas have already been created. Unfortunately there will be another philosopher who will overtake the wisdom of Plato.

However, our purpose today is to re-fashion ideas, and re-fit ideas, that fit our life today.

For example, Stoic philosophy from 2,000 years ago in ancient Rome is quite applicable to today’s society. Yet the ancient Romans didn’t have to deal with distractions from smartphones, social media, and email. So how can we take their wisdom, and integrate it into our modern lives? That is the purpose of coming up with ‘remixed’ ideas.

So my suggestion is this: steal liberally from the past. All good ideas are common property (Seneca). And any good idea belongs to me (also, Seneca).

Ideas are useless without execution. Ideas should exist to improve our lives. To reduce our suffering. To overcome our fears and anxiety, to build more courage and confidence.

So for the best ideas, read old stuff. Very old stuff. The older, the better.

2. Learn the root/history of words

I don’t know Latin. But studying the etymology (the roots of English words in Latin) has helped stir new ideas in my mind.

For example, the word ‘photography’ means ‘painting with light’. This already gives me a hundred blogging ideas.

The history of the word ‘genius’ meant that the ancients believed that an inner-genius dwelled in your mind and soul. We as human beings weren’t geniuses. Rather, everyone was appointed his or her own inner-genius, to inspire and motivate them. Kind of like a ‘guardian angel.’

The word ‘innovate’ comes from the Latin word ‘innovate’ — which I think means to breathe new life into. So innovation is simply breathing new life into old ideas. Kind of how Steve Jobs turned the 2,000 year old tablet (think the 10 commandments) into an iPad (digital tablet).

Whenever I come across a word that inspires me, I go to to study the root and history of the word. What I discover, often surprises me, and helps stir up new ideas for me.

As of now, here are some words which are currently inspiring me to come up with new ideas to write about:

  • Passion (once meant the ‘passion of christ’ — doing something that is actually painful)
  • Agile (a silicon valley word, that applies not only to physical agility, but to mental and business-related agility)
  • Light (listened to a bible passage how you should let your light shine to others, and not hide it under a container)
  • Virtue (nobody uses this word anymore, but we are all familiar with ‘vice’ — the magazine)
  • Magnum Opus (great work, inspires me to do great work in my life)
  • Pivot (a new word that us bay-area silicon valley techies use, but a good source of ideas)
  • Slow (Anything fast is generally bad — most deaths are caused by fast cars, and most projects get screwed up because they are done too quickly. I prefer a ‘slow’ lifestyle — like the recent ‘slow food’ movement, etc)
  • Fluid (I am inspired by water, by the flexility, how fluid it is, just how I hope to live my life and let my thoughts wander)
  • Emptiness (a zen concept, that when I empty my mind, I can allow more ideas to enter)

So to come up with new ideas, just find words that inspire you, and study the history and etymology of them.

3. Let yourself get bored

I am afraid of boredom. I would prefer to stimulate my brain with my smartphone, or read a book instead of sitting around and doing nothing.

But in reality, all my good ideas usually happen when I’m daydreaming, not doing anything, and being bored. Boredom is a pre-cursor to letting your mind roam.

For example, I have a new rule: when I’m having dinner with Cindy, and she goes to the bathroom, I am not allowed to look at my cell phone. This allows me to let myself get bored, let my mind wander, look around the restaurant, and let my brain relax to actually come up with ideas.

A brain constantly stimulated with inputted data and information can never relax, and let ideas connect in the brain, and come up with new ideas.

Have you ever wondered why your best ideas happen in the shower? It is the only time we don’t check our phones.

I also get my best ideas when I’m walking. I like to walk slowly, at a normal pace, and let my mind wander. And whenever I get a good idea, I jot it down in my smartphone as a note in Evernote.

4. Write down your ideas

A question I asked myself:

Should I write down my ideas?

For me, I do. I have a horrible memory, and writing down my ideas is beneficial to me. I have tried also not writing down my ideas (I heard Einstein never wrote down his ideas). Yet that doesn’t work for me.

I keep my ideas written down in Evernote, so I can sync between my smartphone and laptop. I usually do most of my writing in my laptop, and having my ideas sync’d is beneficial to me.

I also make it a daily practice that in the evenings (when Cindy is taking a shower), I look through my Evernote collection of ideas and notes. I then start deleting ideas which I think are dumb. But I keep the ideas which I think might have potential.

Then the next morning, I review my notes again. Then later on, I sit in a cafe, look at my notes in Evernote, and choose an idea that compels me. I then open up IA writer, and start writing my ideas, stream-of-consciousness, with no editing or deleting. I keep typing until the very end. Then I do a basic spell check, some formatting, and then I hit publish.

5. Read poetry

Poetry is ripe of ideas. I like to read old poetry, from Ovid and Horace. They have great stuff. Virgil is another great source of inspiration, as well as Homer.

I also like getting ‘modern’ poetry from hip hop musicians. I love the work of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Dr. Dre. Their work ethic, verses, music, and lyrics often inspire me.

A random example: I love the “New Level” song by A$AP Ferg. Verse-wise, it is pretty empty. Yet it uplifts and pumps me up. And it encourages me to take my life, my photogrpahy, and my blogging to a ‘new level.’

Another example: I love the song ‘Saint Pablo’ by Kanye West. A few of his lines inspired me to write blog posts. I also refer to the website to see the lyrics. An example of blog posts written based on the song:

  • Don’t crowd-source your self-esteem
  • ‘Don’t stare at money too long, its Medusa’ (the analogy of Medusa can apply to so many life situations)

Also a tip- to get ideas from songs, just listen to the song, read the lyrics, and don’t do anything else. So you can really focus on the lines.

So just steal lines from poetry, hip hop music, or anything — and write your own take on it.

6. Ask ‘Why’?

You want to be that annoying kid in class who always asks ‘why?’ to the teacher.

For me, I am often hesitant to ask people ‘why?’ whenever I’m having a conversation. Because I don’t want to sound like an ignorant child.

However, the best way to come up with ideas is to always be curious. To always assume the other person is smarter than you.

So I try to ask ‘Why?’ as much as possible. This leads to deeper conversations, and leads to new ideas.

For example, if you meet a photographer ask them:

Why do you take photos?”

This leads to deep answers.


Why do you write?


Why do you listen to music?

Ask yourself ‘why?’ as much as possible too. This helps you really understand yourself, your personal motives, and what keeps you moving forward in life.

7. Publish bad ideas

My suggestion: if you have a bad idea, flesh it out by writing on it, and just publish it.

Constantly iterate forward with your ideas. Don’t accept ideas as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — just constantly refine them. And publish them. This will give you forward progress, and eliminate fear of sharing your ideas.

8. Share your light with others

Lastly, have courage to share your ideas. If you care, share.

Let your light shine with others. If someone gave you a lamp, would you hide it under your desk? Or would you share that light with others?