Is it Really Possible to Build Up Your “Idea Muscle?”
Isaac Butler: Welcome back to Working overtime. The advice focused better call Saul to regular workings. Breaking Bad. I’m Isaac Butler and.
June Thomas: I’m June Thomas Isaac. How would you rate your creativity level in the last month?
Isaac Butler: I mean, I’ve been working overtime creatively. Frankly, I did this four part lecture series at a school, so I was doing four 90 minute lectures, a new one every Friday. Wow. And I wrote a book proposal that I’m currently revising. So I think that’s that’s pretty good, you know? I mean. Yeah. What about you, June? How’s deadlines going? And what are we talking about today?
June Thomas: Let’s talk about what we’re talking about today. Those are our choices of topics. So earlier this year I read a book by James Altucher. It’s called Skip the Line The 10,000 Experiments Rule and Other Surprising Advice for Reaching Your Goals. This is part of my weird fascination with productivity gurus and Altucher is so openly odd that I almost almost found him charming. My personality and my socialist upbringing means I can’t truly get behind a book that is intended to help some people jump ahead of other perfectly good people to skip the line, as it were. But there was one idea that really grabbed me, so I wanted to talk about it on this episode.
Isaac Butler: It’s about killing your way to the top, right? That’s that’s the appeal to you. It’s like just murdering everyone until you’re the most prominent person in your field.
June Thomas: Yeah, choose your weapon, basically. So he is a serial entrepreneur and investor as well as a writer and some time podcasters. And he talks about the practice that he’s done for years. Every day he writes down ten ideas. Now, as with Julia Cameron’s morning pages, the idea isn’t necessarily to create something amazing. You don’t have to keep track of the ideas. You don’t ever have to look at them again. The point is to build up your idea muscle or as he sometimes calls it, your possibility muscle. Before we go further, what’s your first impression of this? Is this something you’ve ever done? Is it something that appealed to you?
Isaac Butler: I will admit that my answer to these questions June are negative, no and no. And part of this is this is a very close minded response. Maybe, but I have a certain like reflexive consider the source problem here that like, I am just not going to take a suggestion from a cryptocurrency hawking hedge fund millionaire about how to be more creative. Seriously. Do you know what I mean? It’s like I do I. He and I have very similar hair, so I feel bad about feeling this way. But, but, you know, like those aren’t real jobs. And also, I just don’t think that that’s how ideas actually work. I don’t think that’s how imagination actually works. And I don’t think that’s how you become more creative. But I’m trying to yuck fewer Yums You did ask. That’s the only reason why I’m doing did I did.
Isaac Butler: So before I go any further and and whipped myself into a lather or whatever, I got to ask, you know, what were your first impressions around this idea? Because you love systems and habits and things a lot more than I do.
June Thomas: My capacity for taking in this stuff is really astonishingly high, almost despite the source. And I have to say, I really don’t disagree with anything you said, but I was still curious about this particular practice. I had heard second or third hand versions of this idea generation practice because and this is where people are going to think, June, how can I take you seriously? But I watch a lot of stationary videos on YouTube where people are basically desperate for something to put in their journals.
June Thomas: So I had seen people set aside a notebook for their ten daily ideas, and I thought it sounded interesting and I tried it, but it never really worked for me because I didn’t have any structure. And after a few days it was pretty much always around day for my list of ideas would just degenerate into nonsense. Like there was always a lot about communicating with animals and how we should always signs around our necks. Like it just got really bonkers. And so other than realizing that I was really obsessed with animal communication, I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it. So I always.
Isaac Butler: Stopped. So what changed for you?
June Thomas: I think it was that Altucher offered several suggestions for the kinds of topics that a person might generate ideas about. His examples weren’t necessarily things I’m interested in. Like he talked about how he would write ten ideas for things big companies could do to improve their businesses, and then he would send them to the people in charge of those companies. So not something I would do. But somehow the notion of giving myself a topic for my daily list made the process much less Dada and a. Absurd and more satisfying.
June Thomas: And some of his ideas actually were relatable to me. So some examples were ten ideas for books, ten ideas for articles, for TV shows, podcasts, skills. You want to learn ten ways to save time, you know? And so I used some of his ideas to start with. But eventually I got into the habit of having the last thing I do for this daily practice after writing down my ten ideas, be coming up with the topic for the next day’s list. And I think that was what helped me do this every day and what made it sometimes at least feel genuinely useful.
June Thomas: So Isaac About a month ago I suggested to you that we both do this. Did you write down ten ideas every day? Actually, before you answer, let’s take a break. Listeners. We’ll hear how Isaac did after these messages.
June Thomas: All right, we’re back. And I’m dying to know how this experience was for you, Isaac, first. Did you do it every day? Did it feel useful?
Isaac Butler: Drum roll, please. June. I tried. I really did. You asked me a month ago and, you know, I’m trying to be an open minded person. I went into it with an open heart to give it a go, go into it with generosity of spirit. And I just got to tell you, June, I suck at habit formation. I just suck at it. I’m so bad at it. So while I did do it some times over the last month, off and on, you know, I do it for a few days and I’d forget for a couple of days and I remind myself and so on and so forth. So it was never a daily habit really. But I also think one of the reasons why I struggled was because it wasn’t working for me in a month as a long freaking time.
Isaac Butler: You know, it is the thing that’s good about it is it creates deliberate space for thinking and that’s really wonderful. I genuinely believe that, but I just don’t think that this is how ideas sprang to life. I think that ideas come and I mean real ideas, not what should I get at the grocery store or whatever, but like a real meaningful idea comes from having a well tended subconscious. It’s about slowing down and spending time doing things that either require your imagination, reading, making art or whatever, or feed that imagination, going to see art, having meaningful conversations with people who matter to you. Or I mean, I guess I suppose listening to podcasts, right? I mean, I’m all for mindfulness exercises, I’m all for building your creative muscles, and I think daily pages actually are much better at this because that’s an act of deep engagement, you know? But I also don’t want to pretend to speak for anyone other than myself. And so I’m curious about your experience.
June Thomas: Well, again, I just want to say I agree with you about all those things. The things you just mentioned are essential. I really cannot mount a rousing defense of Altucher his view of anatomy and the existence of the possibility muscle and all of that. But for all that was overall a positive experience. For me, this is certainly not a magic trick that will turn you from a creative zero into an idea generating hero. As you alluded to, this is a book whose primary audience is probably people interested in starting businesses as as the author has at various points in his career. And, you know, I, I wish it were possible to be a successful entrepreneur and launch a dream business by making a list every day. But I unfortunately don’t think that’s true.
June Thomas: However, I did enjoy this practice and I got something out of it. I pretty much always found it to be fun. I would engage my just spitballing muscle at the end of the day and it kind of made me smile. You know, There was one day where my schedule was really different from usual, and so I skipped doing it and I really missed having written out my list. I got up early the next morning and I’m glad to say I didn’t get any idea. Cramps or possibility Charley horses, you know, I was able to catch up and really it was just like a pleasant way to spend five minutes as part of my end of day routine. You know, I kind of enjoyed it. But was it useful? It was. You know, on the occasions when I come up with a good topic for the next day’s list, it actually generated productive thoughts. Even if they were just starting things off. It felt kind of real.
June Thomas: No, I have to say there’s probably something that is quite specific to me in my life. So it’s been a little less than a year since I left my day job at Slate, and that was a job where I had to come up with solutions to problems big and small. Like that was a big part of my job. So this kind of simulated the rush I used to get from that part of my work.
June Thomas: We often talk about individuals performing well in tough times, and usually that means when we encounter a bunch of unexpected challenges, you know, nobody actually enjoys those times. But I must admit that in periods like that, like, say, around the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, when we had to make huge changes to the way we made podcasts, I did feel productive and useful and creative, you know, And I feel good about the work I’m doing now, making this podcast and writing my book. But there are fewer opportunities to dazzle with my impressive problem solving skills. And this exercise, I think, stimulated that part of my brain, even if I was only impressing myself. All right. We’re going to take another break here, but we’ll be back with some more thoughts on this ten ideas a day exercise after this.
Isaac Butler: If Overcast is your app of choice as it is mine, please hit the star to recommend this episode to others. Thanks again.
June Thomas: So Isaac Were there any times at all when this felt useful to you?
Isaac Butler: The times that I did find it useful were extremely practical ones, So some days I feel like, Did this happen to you? You get really stretched and suddenly are like ten names of made up vegetables. One flower rips, two Caroli, three scallions. Oh, shit. Scallions are real. You know those days? It’s not. It’s not useful. But when I was like, ten outlets, I should pitch. I felt like, okay, I set aside five minutes to think about that and actually write it down. What about, you.
June Thomas: Know, sim the occasions when I found it most practical or when I quote unquote needed to think about something like, it’s really hard to just sit and ponder, you know, cogitation requires specificity. And it was useful if I could come up with a practical subject for a list, even if it was a bit weird, like I was going to meet someone for the first time and I made a list of things that it would be good if they knew about me, like I wasn’t going to reel them all off.
June Thomas: Hi stranger. Here are ten things I’ve done in my life, but the practice of like pulling them out of the ether actually felt useful. And when we got together I felt a bit more prepared than I usually do for first meetings because it can just be so hard to know what do I want them to know about me kind of thing? And I’ll tell you another concrete situation.
June Thomas: When I was grateful to have started this peculiar habit, and it was when I was starting to feel worried that I wasn’t going to meet my book. DEADLINE And worrying is definitely not productive. So I tried to think of things that would shift my thinking away from anxiety and worry and onto actions I could take. So one night my list was ten adjustments I could make to my current writing process. Now, did I have a genius insight that turned everything around? No, I did not. But it was good to be reminded, which is to say, to remind myself of practical steps. I could take rather than allowing the anxiety to spiral. And on that same overall topic, I did a list of ways my life will be different once I’ve submitted my manuscript or even more motivational once the book is done. And that felt quite reassuring to, you know, just to get back to the underlying motivation for all this work, you.
Isaac Butler: Know, June, I’m curious about what you do with your ideas, you know, or in this case, ten ideas like Altucher says, you could just throw these ideas away, who cares? But he also sometimes sends them to other people’s companies to, you know, to optimize them or whatever. And and I think we can at times put so much pressure on the having of the idea that we forget that an idea is actually just the starting point. You know, when an idea arises, you need to write it down or pace around your apartment and think about it, research it, daydream about it. You know, the ideas that are worthwhile are the ones that spur deep, deep, deep engagement. I’m wondering what your process was with these ideas that you came up with. Were there any of that sparked a deeper, maybe even imaginative process on your part?
June Thomas: They might have kind of started something in motion. I don’t think there are none that are like, okay, this is my next big thing. But I just want to say that I really do think that the biggest takeaway from this exercise is accepting that the weird notions that spring into our heads are worth paying attention to. And part of that is learning to discern when it’s worth exploring. The more my ideas for communicating with cats were not worth the ink and the time I spent writing them down. But sometimes something pops into your noggin that you really should spend more time with. And yes, write that down. And to answer your question, I added the ones I wanted to return to periodically to Obsidian. My note taking app of choice where I have a process for periodically resurfacing notes. It’s all about space repetition, baby.
Isaac Butler: Now wait, wait, wait. Did you also enter it into your zettelkasten so that it can come up with new ideas for you or however that thing works? Yes.
June Thomas: Yes. Although I should let you know it is not I. It’s not generating them for me. But yes, Obsidian is where I keep my zettelkasten and Isaac. I am so proud of you for having internalized that peculiar word. So thank you.
Isaac Butler: You’re welcome. Did you also put it in your bullet journal?
June Thomas: No. Well, did I? No. I think maybe it started in my bullet journal. But no, that’s the thing, though. I want to pat myself on the back because I resisted a stationery purchase, which is not something I can say very often. He writes his ideas down on waiter’s order pads, which he took great pride in, saying that he bought like a gross of them or something. And I think this is the first time that I’ve ever said no to like a single use writing surface. And so I’m just, like, so proud of myself for that.
Isaac Butler: June, I am proud of you, too, because, you know, the first step to. Getting better is admitting you have a problem.
June Thomas: That is so true. All right. I think that’s about it for this week. The practice we’ve been discussing comes from James Altucher book, Skip the Line. Thanks to our endlessly inventive producers, Kevin Bendis and Cameron Drews, it would only take me seconds to come up with a list of ten great things about each of them.
Isaac Butler: We’ll be back with another episode of Working Overtime in two weeks, and on Sunday you’ll find a regular episode of Working right in your feed. Until then, get back to work.
Isaac Butler: Hey listeners, do you come up with ten ideas per day? Do you have any other daily rituals, any practices you’d recommend to your fellow listeners? Well, get in touch and share your experience. You can email us at working at Slate.com. Or even better, call us and leave a listener voicemail at (304) 933-9675. That’s 304933. Warrick.
Isaac Butler: Listeners, I just want to remind you that if you are enjoying working overtime, please subscribe so that you never miss an episode. If you listen on Apple Podcasts, we’d love you to rate or review the show. It really does help new listeners to find us.