Learning to process your rocks

It’s not good to consume too much information, to be bombarded by articles after articles, podcasts after podcasts, or videos after videos. By consuming so much, you can actually lose your ability to think and create, and that’s what happened to me a while back.

Sure, you need input in order to make output, and these inputs generally come from the ideas we’re exposed to and the information we consume. But they don’t come directly, do they? There’s no way you can write a good blog post by copying, almost word for word, the content of another blog post.

The thing that will make your work interesting is your own spin, the way you synthesis the different ideas you’re exposed to into something seemingly original. The way you build upon existing ideas, or the way you provide an alternative interpretation or viewpoint for something seemingly conventional.

Most people forget that between input and output, there is another critical process that needs to happen, and it’s called processing. Remember the age-old input, processing, output model?

Most people spend far too much time on the input spectrum. Some people, like myself, try to spend more time on the output spectrum, exploring the world of daily blogs or recordings, trying to regularly create something out of nothing. But that never works, you can’t create something out of nothing, you just can’t. You can only create something out of something else.

Everything starts with something, and in the world of content creation, that something is usually an idea. And ideas are like rocks, each might be a different color and you can’t make much just by collecting them. People like me fall into the trap of collecting too many rocks and trying too hard to make something out of them. What we all too often forget is the critical step in the middle, the processing part.

Rocks need to be melted so you can extract those little colored particles trapped inside them. It’s called processing, and there’s no way you can process your rocks if you keep looking for new rocks to collect. It’s also called thinking, you know, the thing you do when you’re all alone and bored to tears. You can’t think when you’re consuming new information, you’d just be busy looking at colorful rocks to do any processing.

And once you have enough rocks processed, you might end up with things like “iron” or “aluminum” to work with, and with enough luck, you might end up creating something better than that “titanium” thing someone else made.

The bottom line is this, stop collecting rocks and start spending more time with them. Spend some time alone with the rocks you already have and just stare at them. Get bored and enjoy your rocky companions, your mind will start processing them into something else to try and escape the boredom, and before you know it, you’ve invented a new iron-aluminum alloy that’s as strong and light as titanium but at 10% the production cost.

Free ideas everywhere!

The internet is filled with all sorts of free ideas, from life-changing to dumbfounding, there’s not a shortage of ideas anywhere. Even this blog, just click on the archive and you’ll find as many as my previous 400++ (and counting) blog posts for all sorts of free ideas! What are you waiting for? Buy now, it’s free!

But on the flip side, the internet is filled with too many ideas, mostly on the dumbfounding side. And I admit, most of my blog posts are probably not “great ideas” but what do you expect? It’s not easy coming up with great ideas everyday. If you follow or read my blog, you have my thanks and gratitude. Thanks for putting in the time and effort to read my work, it means a lot to me. Though there might not be many of you, or any, but if I can just make someone’s day or help someone out a bit, it’s more than enough for me.

I’ve always been interested in ideas, they say execution is what counts but without any ideas, there is no execution. Perhaps I love ideas too much, so much so to the point where it’s all I do. Ideas are a writer’s best friend, and what am I right now but a writer crafting pieces out of my ideas? And perhaps for a writer, ideas in itself are a form of execution?

So what happens when you come up with ideas after ideas, day after day? Well, you sort of just get better at it. There will always be bad ideas, but you’ll eventually get a good idea or two. As long as you don’t run out of bad ideas, the good ideas will keep coming, bit by bit, drip by drip. And even if you create nothing but bad ideas, don’t feel bad because some of it will spark a good idea in someone else.

Fantastic ideas and where to find them

Inspiration can strike at any time and if you don’t act on them fast enough, they may get lost in the ether forever. Sometimes they come back, it happens every now and then but most of the time, it’s gone forever.

Throughout my years of daily writing, I’ve lost count of just how many ideas and inspirations I failed to act on. And yet after all these years, I still have something to write about every day. Granted I’ve taken a few hiatus here and there, switched blogs a couple of time and whatnot. But in the end, it seems like the supply of ideas and inspirations are endless.

Writer’s block? That’s just a myth, your internal filter for what counts as “publishable content” are just set too high. Lower it down and let some junk through, you’ll find that after flushing your brain a few times, great ideas can be found anywhere.

Perhaps the best thing you can do when looking for fantastic ideas is to specifically not look for them. Instead, wander around, be playful and stay open to them, let the ideas find you. You just don’t find inspiration, inspiration finds you.

On becoming an idea machine

This is an idea from James Altucher in his ultimate guide for becoming an idea machine.

It’s a pretty good article, his point? Start coming up with 10 ideas a day, make your brain sweat every day and eventually, you too can be the next heavyweight idea champion.

If you look up “10 ideas a day” on the internet, you can find quite a few accounts from people who have tried it, and the outcomes are all overwhelmingly positive. So I thought to myself, why not give it a try?

Now, I could just write down my 10 ideas on a piece of paper every day, and I think I’m actually going to do that, but what fun would that be? Instead, I’m going to create a podcast about it and record myself, I’ll be using this site to generate the themes for my 10 ideas.

But why, you ask, why not just share the list as a blog post? It’s a better and more suitable medium, I agree. But at the same time, I’ve been neglecting my podcast project a lot lately and figure, this would be the perfect opportunity to get back in the groove, start recording again and practice speaking in front of a microphone.

Ultimately, I think it would be very fun to find a co-host to do this with. Just imagine, two friends brainstorming, taking turns probing and building upon each other’s idea on 10 ways to fix a broken chair, or 10 ways to survive in a foreign country without any money, or even 10 ways to hide a pet penguin from the landlord.

Wouldn’t that be fun?

Write ideas down as they form

Note to self, start writing down ideas as they happen. I was surprised by how many ideas I thought up of while traveling but lost them simply because I didn’t write them down.

It was really frustrating when I forgot what I wanted to write about, normally I’d manage somehow, or move on to another idea, but when traveling it’s especially hard since there are a lot of constraints to writing.

I’ll try again tomorrow, maybe I’ll have something more profound to say by then.

The dangers of abstraction

In everyday life, we are bombarded with thousands and thousands of information. To make our lives easier, we apply a layer of abstraction to simplify things. Take the following examples:

  • Maria is an 11-year-old girl who lives in Zimbabwe. Every day, she has to walk 5 miles just to collect water from a polluted river for her family and siblings.
  • Mary has 2 apples and John has 3 apples. John ate two of his apples because he was hungry. How many more apples does Mary have?

We can apply a layer of abstraction to the above examples and turn them into much simpler forms:

  • People in Africa have little access to clean water.
  • 2 – (3 – 2) = ?

All it cost was the context and we have simplified the problem. By making it abstract, we eliminated a lot of clutter and went straight to the point. What’s not to like? A lot of things.

In the water example, abstraction feels dehumanizing as we lose our emotional response and human connection/empathy to the daily hardships faced by Maria. Instead, we start to think about the problem from a more robotic analytical mindset, that people in Africa have little access to clean water, and thus we care less about it.

In the apple example, the difference may not be as big as the water example but by making the problem abstract, some people might not understand the purpose or concept of using the bracket. Under the context of Mary’s apple and John’s apple, we can intuitively understand what the bracket is for.

In many ways, abstraction has allowed us to reach higher levels of thinking by generalizing, understanding patterns and seeing relationships between concepts. But beware that a lot of times, it is beneficial to go down a few levels and work with concrete examples.

Concrete examples are what everyone will understand, it is also how you can get others to care about what you care and see what you see. Put aside your abstract ideas for a while, make it concrete for everyone to see.

Why I read so much

Looking to my right, there lies a pile of books I bought just a few weeks ago. Glancing behind me, there are about a dozen or so more books I haven’t read yet. At this rate, it will be a very long time before I finish them all.

There are so many books I want to read, yet I can’t spend all my time reading. My eyes are getting tired and my eyesight is worsening, I should really take a break from reading every now and then.

I wish there was some way to download all those books into my mind. Listening to their audiobook counterpart is a great way of doing so, and most of the books I’ve consumed this year are audiobooks.

Some part of me still yearns for a way to read books while sleeping. Putting the book under my pillow didn’t work, for obvious reasons. And neither did listening to audiobooks while sleeping, either I couldn’t fall asleep, or I fell asleep but don’t remember anything. Usually, it was the former.

Sometimes I wonder, why do I want to read so much? Is it my thirst for knowledge? Do I see reading as a form of entertainment for learning new stuff? Or do I see it as an escape from reality?

Perhaps what I really want is a way to peek into the minds of other people. To find out what they are thinking. Most of the time, I can’t do that with a simple conversation.

The amount of information that can be shared through a simple conversation is quite limited. One of the best ways to learn about the profound ideas other people have is to read their work.

Read the book they spent hours writing and rewriting. Read the content they so painstakingly researched and put into writing. You are taking a glimpse into someone’s mind and learning about their ideas.

It doesn’t have to be a book, it could be a short film, a painting, a presentation or any piece of work they put effort into doing. It’s one of the few underappreciated ways to learn about other people.

I thought I was more interested in the ideas rather than the person the idea came from but I usually read directly from individual blogs rather than aggregators. It shows that I value the writer more than the collection of ideas.

Ideas and discoveries

Here’s an interesting trivia, 18th-century Swedish chemist Karl Scheele discovered eight elements, chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen, and oxygen, but he got credit for none of them.

In every case, his findings were either overlooked or made into publication after someone else had independently made the same discovery. If the world was just and Swedish-speaking, he would have enjoyed universal acclaim.

For example, Scheele discovered oxygen in 1772 but due to various heartbreakingly complicated reasons, he couldn’t get his paper published in a timely manner. In the end, credit went to Joseph Priestley who discovered it independently in 1774.

Even more remarkable, Scheele failed to receive credit for the discovery of chlorine and a lot of textbooks still attribute chlorine’s discovery to Humphry Davy, who indeed discovered it, but thirty-six years after Scheele!

Of course, I read all that from the book, ‘A short history of nearly everything‘ and if you want the references, the book cites page 193 of Mendeleyev’s Dream by Paul Strathern.

That’s not all, in 1787 someone found a giant bone that clearly didn’t belong to any known species of animal. It is actually a dinosaur bone but at that time, dinosaurs weren’t discovered yet.

The bone was sent to Dr. Caspar Wistar but he failed to recognize its significance and missed the chance to be the first to discover dinosaurs half a century before anyone else. The bone generated so little interest, it was put in a storeroom and eventually lost and forgotten. For this story, the book cites page 4 of The Great Dinosaur Hunters and Their Discoveries by Edwin H. Colbert.

There are a lot more stories like these, some were predictions made by scientists years ahead of their time and were only proven years later after the field has matured.

Some scientists made discoveries without telling anyone, like Newton. He invented Calculus but didn’t tell anyone for twenty-seven years! He also did work in optics that transformed our understanding of light and laid the foundation for the science of spectroscopy, and again chose not to share the results for three decades.

My point in sharing these stories, aside from pure entertainment value, is to show that sometimes, we might discover something. It can be something as simple as a productivity hack, a faster way to tie shoelaces, or even a new shower head design that uses less water and gives more pressure.

We might not realize the value of our discoveries, as in the dinosaur story. We might have difficulties trying to get others to listen, as in Scheele’s case. We all have ideas, just that we might not realize it yet.

Ever cut your nails and have them fly all over the place? Well, somebody certainly did. Most people didn’t give it much thought and ended up like Wistar. Some people got really annoyed at it and started coming up with solutions. They covered the sides of the nail clipper with sellotape and viola, no more flying nails.

I’m sure many people independently discovered that trick, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. What happens next is, some people kept it to themselves, like what Newton did and not tell anyone. Some published it on the internet but fell on deaf ears while others were successful in spreading their ideas.

Ideas are everywhere, you just need to see its significance. If you have one, it’s up to you if you want to get it out to the world.