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A technique for producing ideas


In his book ‘A technique for producing ideas’ James Webb Young articulates a – to most of us – very illusive idea: how we get ideas. I thought it would be fun to re-read this classic 50-page book for this weeks article. Do you want to know what the principles and methods are behind coming up with new and fresh ideas?

It is so simple you might not even believe it…

To know everything about a certain subject is a helpful tool to impress your friends or co-workers at a party, but this knowledge is rapidly aging and is only useful in a limited amount of situations. James Webb Young talks about the fact that the knowledge of principles and method are more valuable than just the knowledge of a certain subject itself.

When talking about the art of producing ideas he says: ‘What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.’    

 ‘What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.’  

James Webb Young arrives at two general principles in generating ideas:

  1. An idea is a new combination of old elements
  2. Your ability to make new combinations is heightened by an ability to see relationships.

The beautiful thing about these two principles is that it states that every person is able to generate or come up with ideas. It is possible to train your brain to examine the old elements and bits of information in your head to come up with new ideas and insights.

How, you ask?

To train the mind in a method by which all ideas are produced:


  1. Gather raw material
  2. Work over the material in your head (storming)
  3. Leave it alone and go do something else (forming)
  4. The idea
  5. Shaping and development of the idea for practical use


Gathering raw material
I used to wait until inspiration would strike me before I would become productive. This resulted in lots of frustrating moments, where I was not making any progress. Instead of waiting for that stroke of genius you should start gathering raw material. To be more specific: general and specific raw material. This would for example be in-depth knowledge of the product and the audience you want to sell it to (specific). General raw material is any and every piece of information about subjects that excites you and of which you are interested in. A great way of backlogging all this new information would be to make a scrapbook or writing things down on small note-cards for you to keep.

Work over the material in your head
Exactly as is stated above: work over the material in your head. Start looking through all the specific and general materials that you have gathered. Find new connections and build new relationships. Make sure to grasp any and every idea and write them down. No matter how crazy or unrealistic. You will get very tired doing this, keep going until you have absolutely nothing left and your head is a total mussed-mess.

Leave it alone and go do something else
Once you have reached the stage of utter frustration and there does not seem to be any more ideas or insights left in your head, leave everything behind, drop the problem completely. Get up and go somewhere. Turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. For me personally, that would be a museum, a concert or a place with an amazing view. What would this be for you?

The idea
Once you have walked through the above mentioned steps and really have put in the work. You will be struck by an ‘idea’. As with all great ideas this will probably hit you in a mental state of relative relaxation like under the shower or in the morning when you are waking up. (EUREKA!)

Shaping and development of the idea for practical use
Getting the idea is only step in a long journey, but a definite first step that can lead to new insights and actions and help you set yourself up to win. Do not dread the ‘morning after’ feeling the day after your great idea. Share it with your loved ones, your friends and let’s hear what they think. Your idea will grow from there.

Want to start using this technique to produce your own new and fresh ideas?

Here are 3 quick questions to get you started on step 1: the collection of raw materials:

– How, where and when are you getting in information?
Are you mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Instagram? Or do you curate which pages you follow and what content comes to you? Time to be critical in what you consume. This will help incredibly in your process of gathering raw general material.

– Which websites, books and/or locations do you visit regularly?
I used to be a sucker for news sites and anything sport related. I would obsessively open the same webpage multiple times in an hour just to check if any new content was posted. What this useful? No. Gratifying? In the short term, maybe, but one thing is for sure: It had me move around in circles all the time, staying in the same spot. Break these habits, try a different bar or coffee place and open yourself up to new insights and experiences.

– At what moments are you most likely to consume content?
How do you spend your time? And at what moment are you most likely to read an article or look at amazing pictures of a landscape made by your favorite photographer? Would that be during your commute? Or on a Saturday morning? Identify these moments and see if you can deliberately put your focus towards the gathering of raw materials.

Good luck!