A simple technique for producing ideas
This has brought me to the conclusion that the production of ideas is as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.
If you ask me why I am willing to give away the valuable formula of this discovery I will confide to you that experience has taught me two things about it: First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it. Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it. Thus I broadcast this formula with no real fear of glutting the market in which I make my living.
The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.
The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations, depends largely on the ability to see relationships.
Consequently, the habit of mind which leads to a. search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas. Now this habit of mind can undoubtedly be cultivated. I venture to suggest that, for the advertising man, one of the best ways to cultivate it is by study in the social sciences. A book like Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class therefore becomes a better book about advertising than most books about advertising.
This, then, is the first step in the technique of producing ideas: the gathering of materials. Part of it, you will see, is a current job and part of it is a life-long job.
The first is that if you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it. This is simply to get yourself a supply of those little 3 x 5 ruled white cards, and use them to write down the items of specific information as you gather them. If you do this, one item to a card, after a while you can begin to classify them by sections of your subject. Eventually you will have a whole file box of them, neatly classified. The advantage of this method is not merely in such things as bringing order into your work, and disclosing gaps in your knowledge. It lies even more in the fact that it keeps you from shirking the material-gathering job; and by forcing your mind to go through the expression of your material in writing really prepares it to perform its idea-producing processes.
kinds of general material some method of doing it like a scrapbook or file is useful. You will remember, the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the famous detective spent his spare time indexing and cross-indexing, the odd bits of material he gathered there. We run across an enormous amount of fugitive material which can be grist to the idea-producer's mill-newspaper clippings, publication articles, and original- observations. Out of such material it is possible to build a useful source book of ideas.
What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them, as it were, with the tentacles of the minds. You take one fact, and turn it this way and that, look at is in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.
As you go through this part of this part of the process two things will happen. First., little tentative or partial ideas will come to you. Put these down on paper. Never mind how crazy or incomplete they seem: get them down. These are foreshadowing of the real idea that is to come, and expressing these in words forwards the process. Here again the little 3 x5 cards are useful.
In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. You drop the whole subject, and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can. It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind, and let it work while you sleep.
Now, if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth. Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
In this stage you have to take your little idea out into the world of reality. And when you do you usually find that it is not quite the marvelous child it seemed when you first gave birth to it.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious. When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
This, then, is the whole process or method by which ideas are produced: First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge. Second, the working over of these materials in your mind. Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis. Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea – the "Eureka! I have it'' stage. And fifth, the final shaping and development of this idea to practical usefulness.