Jason Lengstorf

How to Have Great Ideas: Write Everything Down

If you’re waiting for inspiration, you’re doing it wrong. Great ideas don’t happen overnight — you have to make sure you give them a chance to grow.

Jason Lengstorf
written by Jason Lengstorf

If I've had one Big Idea™ in my life so far, it's this: careers and income are tools, not goals.

Currently, my goals are:

  1. to live a life where I'm not obligated to do anything I haven't chosen to do;
  2. to have the personal and financial freedom to do the things that sound interesting to me;
  3. to live a life where every day I'm saying, "I can't imagine any way I'd rather be living right now."

That idea wasn't born whole. For anyone who's been reading along, I've slowly built this idea, starting in late 2013 when I realized how unhealthy my working situation was, gaining steam in early 2014 when I wrote about my workaholism, and evolving ever since as I've shifted into a new lifestyle of permanent travel and far more balance.

I can't point to an exact moment where I suddenly "got it" with work. If you asked me to pinpoint a date when I realized I was killing myself, I can't.

Some of the Best Ideas Have Nothing to Do With Inspiration

Since I grew up watching American television, I'd always imagined the discovery of evolution as a kind of action movie plot:

Charles Darwin in... Die Hard.

1 trillion species. 21 islands. 1 scientist.

It's 1857. Charles “Willis” Darwin is just trying to get home to his wife and daughter for Christmas, but he unwittingly stumbles into a secret lab on a remote archipelago in the eastern Pacific — and there's trouble brewing.

Only Darwin stands between the terrorists and global destruction, so he grudgingly accepts the call to adventure. For 85 action-packed minutes, Darwin banters, beats, and blasts through unspeakable odds.

In the climax, the terrorist leader dangles a hundred feet above a rocky shoreline. His eyes are wide with terror as he screams, “This is murder!”

“No,” grumbles Darwin, lifting his boot from the rope and letting the terrorist plunge to his death. “This is natural selection.”

The world is saved. And also he developed the underlying theory behind On the Origin of Species.

Of course, the reality was nothing like that.

The only remarkable thing about Charles Darwin developing the theory of evolution is how utterly uninteresting it is.

Darwin never had a eureka! moment. No chance encounter or happy accident. He just... kept scratching an itch. And after several years, the pieces finally fit together in a coherent way — and he had a theory.

Steven Johnson calls this a "slow hunch", and attributes several great breakthroughs in history to it. His argument, really, is that very few ideas happen suddenly and without warning; rather, "they fade into view."

The Tragically Short Half-Life of Ideas

For a month in early 2016, I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam.

How to cross traffic in Vietnam.

How to cross the street in Vietnam. Credit: Reddit

The sidewalks in Vietnam are used for everything except walking; the corners are packed with people sitting on tiny stools, enjoying street food and bia hơi; scooters weave through the pedestrian press, blasting horns, carrying everything from families of four to refrigerator-sized boxes, somehow staying upright and avoiding the thousand other quick-weaving, horn-blasting scooters.

On a walk through this chaos one evening, I had an idea. It was a good idea. I know this because I remember the giddy-silly excitement I felt after it hit me.

And then? I fucking forgot it.

When I got home, I could remember being excited, but I could not remember what I had thought of.

Had I taken a few seconds to put a note into my phone, I'd still have it. But I couldn't be bothered, and now I'm sans-idea.

The secret to good ideas: write everything down.

Losing that idea wasn't the first time this has happened to me. And apparently I'm not the only one who does this.

Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. [...] Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of our memory too quickly[...]. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down.
Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Darwin was very good at taking notes. He had notebook after notebook filled with ideas, quotes, sketches, and whatever else came to mind as he wrote.

He reread those notes, which allowed his new ideas to mix with his old ideas, and that led to new lines of inquiry and thought. Most importantly, the ideas were able to marinate without being forgotten, because there was a record of them.

Eighteenth-century aristocrats had Tumblrs. No, for real.

Darwin's note-taking was similar to a trendy seventeenth- and eighteenth-century practice called "commonplacing", which was essentially the act of writing down things that were interesting or inspiring, along with the commonplacer's independent commentary and thought.

The goal was to keep a written record of the transient thoughts that we catch and release each day, in hopes of preserving them beyond the limits of our own memories — giving us a better chance to find connections between our current ideas and those we've had before.

Most of my ideas have been slow hunches.

Most of what I write about is the product of slow hunches. I've only had a few moments of blinding clarity — like this one — where I believed one thing one moment, and another things the next.

Instead, most of my ideas slowly emerged as bits and pieces that I'm still working to fit together properly.

A few examples:

Every month or so I scan through my older writing and take a pulse on where I was versus where I am. Sometimes I get an idea for a new post. Other times I cringe at an awkward phrase.

But revisiting previous ideas always helps me refine my current thinking — and in a lot of cases it leads me to solutions that I most likely would have missed otherwise.

The Revolution Will Mostly Go Unnoticed

Taking notes is not a new idea. It's not a revolutionary idea. I'm not arguing that I've stumbled upon some deep secret of the universe.

However, taking notes will improve your ability to track multiple ideas over longer periods of time.

And that just might change everything.