So you want to make the next “big thing”. You yearn for the next big idea: the breakthrough. You spend hours upon hours in brainstorming sessions, looking for that one gem. You are doing it wrong.

Coming up with ideas is a bit like comedy: It’s possible to sit down and write jokes, but things are always funnier when done on-the-fly. People have certainly had good ideas in a brainstorming session, but Zuckerberg didn’t decide to make Facebook after sitting down and thinking about what the best new startup would be. No, Zuckerberg started Facebook because he wanted an easy way to talk to his friends.

In order to discover good ideas, there needs to be an always-on part of your brain that’s constantly looking for things to make. Take, for example, my website: Third Grade Math Games. Sometimes I’ll sit down and try to think up new math game ideas. Never once has that worked out. However, a couple of days ago, I heard about a physical product that allows users to guess the location of a fraction and then see how close they were. It’s all right, but not anything noteworthy. As soon as I saw it, though, I knew immediately that this needed to be made into a game for my website. It’s one of those games - like solitaire - the was originally made as a physical product, but made so much more sense as a computer game. This wasn’t a brainstorming session; it was the always-on part of my brain having an idea.

Practical Advice

So far this post as been a lot of hot air. Let’s try some practical tips that will (hopefully) get the always-on part of your brain running:

  1. Whenever you see a problem, try to imagine a way to fix it that you could sell to other people.
  2. Whenever you have an idea, write it down. Always. Even if you think it’s a terrible idea, write it down. You will forget.
  3. Whenever you see someone else’s idea, find a way to do it better than them. Steal as necessary. (Remember that fraction guessing game I made?)
  4. Find that list of all the great ideas you wrote down in step 2 and pick the best one. Make it happen. (When creating your idea, figure out about how long it should take to complete a first prototype. Make your first prototype in a third of that time. A mediocre implementation of an idea is better than half of a perfect implementation.)
  5. Stop watching TV. If there’s something specific you plan to see at a certain time, that’s okay once in a while. Channel surfing, though, is like begging for failure in life.
  6. When you create something, get it in front of as many people as possible. As long as you’re nice, people are usually happy to try out something you’ve made.
  7. If you start an idea and then find out you aren’t very excited about it, stop. Working on something you don’t enjoy isn’t worth it.
  8. On the contrary, if you just hit a little snag, push through it. Don’t let the little things stop you. Remember step 1. This problem might be able to become another idea.
  9. Don’t be afraid to share your ideas. If someone steals your idea, don’t worry about it. The amount you’ll gain from the insights of others far outweighs the possibility of the idea being stolen.
  10. Write down everything. We already went over this, but some people don’t seem to believe me. You have to write it down. No matter how bad you think the idea is, write it down. Often bad ideas can lead to good ones.

To quote Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror quoting Curtis Armstrong as Charles De Mar:

Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way … turn.

Bonus tip: I needed a simple place to write down ideas, so I made this page that just saves whatever text you write. I don’t get anything from it (like money), so this isn’t really an advertisement as much as it is a gift. Use it as desired.