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Ask HN: How do you stimulate your creativity on a day like today?
48 points by cl42 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments
A few times a week, I like to pick up a copy of the FT, WSJ, etc. and read through them to come up with interesting ideas and projects.

I'm aspiring to do the same with sci-fi short stories... Reading them but also asking the question of, "How can this be built?"

What tools and tactics do you use to stimulate ideas and brainstorm?


Limit your work in an artificial way. It will magnify and focus your thinking.

By way of a silly (and classic) illustration: try writing in a way that forbids inclusion of that common Roman glyph found prior to F and following D.

(And actually think about it! Don’t just opt for words you found in a book of synonyms!)

A common complaint about this sort of thing is that it's just too artificial. Not many folks can actually find fun in this sort of thing. It is difficult to cut that most common symbol from your vocabulary of glyphs, and it brings small joy at its finish. It ruins your writing flow. But, not having had my own try at it, my cynicism is possibly without justification.

I know what you did and it’s fantastic.


Aha, and you did it too! Anothr way to do it is shortn words into a sort of slang.

I know a book was brought to print that didn’t have the glyph, but I can’t bring it to the front of my mind.

Would concur strongly with this. I try to do this by cutting down laptop utilisation. Play with kid or watch TV in the place of non-productivity. Stick to 4 hours a day of work.

The most famous one is “La disparition” (translated to “A void“) by Georges Perec.

structure preserving transformation

As a variation of this for a sci-fi story: modify just a thing (dying at 30 - Logan - or at 200 ...)

(I did it too, woo hoo!)

That’s a fantastic point about science fiction. There are two things I find exciting about sci fi: the space opera and the morality stories.

Science fiction was initially attractive because of the former, but the way the morality stories made me think about the world around me is what’s made me want to delve deeper and deeper into the classics.

Concrete examples:

The Mote In God’s Eye on xenophobia and the seemingly intractable problem of diplomatic entente between nation states where one or both are threatened with survival.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress on revolutionary colonial politics.

Speaker for the Dead on the corruption of ecologies that we fundamentally don’t understand.

Real literature has never felt accessible to me. Sci-fi gave me a joy of reading that Candide never did.

haha, amazing work, guys! I am so happy with this.

(me tooooo)

Wow, impressive.

Just "Wow" would do it!

When I am looking for ideas - I find letting my imagination roam while doing menial tasks such as cleaning, yard work, or even driving helps a lot. The combination of not needing to pay attention and no distractions seems to free my mind.

When I am ready to start exploring that idea - a cup of coffee, someplace quiet, no screens, a pencil, and some blank sheets of paper turned horizontally (landscape).

Do you draw? Are you visual? I ask because I love using a pencil to brainstorm on a sheet of paper (or a marker; I hate pens). I tend to write broad ideas or mindmaps, though, and wonder if people sketch ideas instead.

I do not draw, I am terrible at art unfortunately. I use a pencil for that very reason, when I sketch out ideas I usually have to erase and make corrections because what is in my head and what my hand puts down are usually not the same, haha.

I visually sketch out the ideas and use labels and arrows to further explain. Despite my terrible drawings, I still find "a picture is worth a thousand words".

I do sloppy sketches and I'm not too bad at art (literal decades of practice). I do sloppy sketches for visual idea, and then do written labels for those sloppy sketches. They have their place.

I'll add that no one is really terrible at art, they just aren't practiced. Even those folks that have a predisposition towards art do not do well without practice and training muscle memory to do it. Most folks can get a general grasp on sketching and basic art concept if they want to.

Can anyone provide the modern 2020 blog youtube pinterest or whatever platform equivalent of the 70s/80s "Computer Recreations" or "Amateur Scientist" columns from Scientific American magazine from that era?

I mean yeah its interesting to look at state of the art for the time "Game of Life" and building tic tac toe AI "computers" out of match boxes and human power, but I'm curious where you find that kind of stuff in 2020?

Recently here on HN, like this morning, there was an interesting discussion of modern pseudorandom number generation and that seems like the kind of topic that could have been turned into a "Computer Recreations" column or modern media equivalent.

The closest answer I can come up with is some of the language koan sites or maybe project euler or rosalind.info project.

If you like doing EE hardware/firmware but only 4 times per year I guess there's the Adafruit box program. I have them all and they were all pretty fun, but only for a couple hours per quarter...

I guess the experience I'm trying to replicate is like a lot of gen-x computer people I once got a copy of SciAm magazine in the mail and two hours later I'm writing a very slow but working mandelbrot fractal program in interpreted basic on an 80s home computer, not because the execution speed was fast but because the development time was fast and it was a fun and exciting experiment.

There must be something like that today?

https://www.youtube.com/user/explainingcomputers I like this channel. It has nice TV like feeling and no nosense presentations. And It is also the only channel I have enabled notifications.

I know I might be downvoted but a tiny bit of marijuana at times is mana for creativity. Just to get it started. Smoking a lot of pot is a waste

Substance abuse has a long and storied history closely linked with unlocking creative genius. But part of that history is that it always always comes with a price. In our biology, like with most things, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

The cost comes with abuse and that goes with anything, it could be beer, pringles and even food. I’ve consumed in moderation for 20 years and not on a daily basis and honestly I have nothing to regret and I doubt I ever will. There’s more damage done to my body from sitting down on a chair starring at a screen for 8 hours a day than the ocassional mj puff. Quite on the contrary, it has made me a lot more productive in moments when I was stuck and lifted the vail of the mundane conformity in thinking, enough to make me aware where I am too complacent and help me shake it off.

Downvoted? More like upvoted. THC is magic.

With one caveat, one may become too friendly to THC and then waste too much a time chasing good times. It harms one's best abilities if abused and it's quite easy to fall into that trap with the current trend of legalization. Not saying it shouldn't be legalized, no, I think it should but people should become aware of benefits and pitfalls.

Creative people to bounce random ideas off. Physical activity with the above (go on a walk with someone, play a sport). Unusual stimuli and contexts (if you never go look at modern art, go to a modern art gallery and think about your ideas there).

Its kinda fun to alternate between google earth / google maps satellite view and wikipedia as you scroll along Alexander the Great's path or visually examine the pyramid complexes in Egypt or search for ghost towns in the USA west, or that strange linear string of meteor craters across the american midwest.

I remember around the turn of the century a guy who mapped out infrastructure for some grad school project getting his term paper classified for having way too much detail about electrical switching infrastructure weak points. However even in 2020 there's plenty of stuff to look for on military bases both famous and not famous, and its also fun to take overhead journey of something like the Empire Builder railroad line and compare it to my memories of taking that ride in person. Also national parks look interesting on google earth, at least to me.

I love this, though it hurts to read as we're going into a COVID lockdown here on Sunday. Anyway, I love the idea of modern art + unusual stimuli in general.

Aspiring novelist here.

Lots and lots and lots (and lots) of ideas written down and left un-judged. I’m taking anything that pops in your head. Sometimes getting an idea, any idea, written down gives the brain the chance to expand and improve on it over time even subconsciously and this is where tons of good ideas develop.

One side note here: don’t assume you’ll remember an idea you have. I can’t count how many times I’ve thought, “oh I’ll write that down later” only to forget what it was entirely. Stop whatever you’re doing and jot the idea down somewhere. This is especially annoying at 2AM.

I watched a writer’s room work on a comedy show I enjoy and they talked about how for each episode they aim for about 30-40 jokes, which requires around 300-500 ideas be written down. No idea was mocked and everything was written down and taped to the wall. Most of the time good ideas evolved from some that were initially half-baked.

I’ve written an idea down and gone back to it and not understood what I even meant, or if I did the details that made the idea interesting to me in the first place were gone. I don’t think you have to flesh out an idea on the spot, but I would recommend writing down all the details of your idea and include any fleshing out of the idea your brain already did on its own.

There is a famous Seinfeld episode about this very thing! Jerry writing down a joke idea and forgetting later why the joke was funny at the time.

Same thing as you! I also like to visit ideas I've written down and develop them. Sometimes I'll do copywork, and just type out or re-write an article I really liked, just to feel what it's like to write something I liked... I cribbed this from someone else, I can't remember who. I delete all of it after, but it gets my ideas flowing for sure.

So, you're writer! I remember reading an article by Peter Drucker[1] a while back about how different people think differently (obviously) and one that resonated with me was people who write -- i.e., sit down and write your thoughts and structure them to develop an idea or POV. I am 100% this, versus say a visual or auditory brainstormer.

Do you delete it all because you're worried about keeping it? I keep my notes but rarely return to them.

[1] https://signallake.com/innovation/managing_oneself.pdf

Ah—I just meant I would delete the copywork, which is the essay of someone else's I just typed up! I just figured it wasn't mine, plus I get some small satisfaction of "cleaning up," like a very non-sacred version of colored sand in Buddhism.

Cool link. I need to spend more time with this, Peter Drucker is brilliant. It sounds like you and I write similarly, I am a meticulous outliner.

I really like voice dictation as a writing alternative, but I need to be really focused. e.g., I tried "freewriting" by voice when I was cleaning the bathroom once, and it turned out sloppy.

Thanks for starting this topic btw, great question and I'm really liking the discussion.

My pleasure! Nice Saturday reading, right? :)

My only reliable creativity process:

Take one axis of interest, say "speed", quantize it into a few blocks, e.g. geological, glacial, lifetime, milisecond

Then another with as little regard for the first as possible, let's go with "monsters". e.g. titan, rabid elephant, blob, murder hornets.

Then you just fill out each box as to what the heck the intersection of those two axis mean.

Geological murder hornets? "You see what you don't know about carribean islands is that they are attacking north america and that's why it's trying to run away ..." crazy stuff like that.

If you do this with more carefully chosen, work related axis it works well too. You have to fill out all the boxes though, the hardest ones end up being the most interesting.

This also works with coming up with present ideas.

The whole process is intended to force juxtaposition and consideration of ideas which you normally couldn't come up with via associative links.

Running. Running till I cannot breathe and continuing like that for a few more kilometers.

Cardio is magic when you start to get fit and are able to push through - your brain starts to wander and interesting ideas (and takes on ideas), just come to you. At least that is my experience. You could try it for yourself.

I track all my ideas using FreeMind (http://freemind.sourceforge.net/), and generally recommend it.

It's not really being actively maintained, but since it's in an open data format if it ever stops working you can just export your data into whatever format org-mode uses.

Usually I don't get around to doing projects until at least 5 years after having the idea, so my ideas tend to develop little by little over the years until the time is right to finally pursue them. So this format lets me keep track of the various ideas as I slowly do more research and put more thought into them.

I noticed you also have a blog. Did you find that helps?

I have a daily journal where I log ideas/observations but it's organized by date on GitHub (and I get paranoid about having it in the cloud, TBH). The idea of organizing around ideas or topic trees makes more sense, though.

I try to teach myself one big thing per year, and then eventually do a writeup to explain how I taught myself that thing. And yeah, FreeMind definitely helps for that also.

Right now I'm a few years behind just due to building my startup, although I have a 20K+ word post that just needs one last round of minor edits heh.

In terms of topic trees, yeah the main benefit is that forcing yourself to organize your ideas this way helps you to have new ideas, just based on being able to see the relationships between things that you wouldn't have otherwise been able to see. This is my blog post that goes more in-depth on the benefits:


Believe it or not, putting down books, stepping away from screens, and just getting the blood flowing through exercise is a great way to clear the mind and just let it wander. I'm also reminded of walking meditation. Used to work with a math PhD who would take breaks to walk around the parking lot smoking his pipe.

Other than that, I hang out in forums like HN and certain subreddits that seem to spark ideas in me. Some of them are hobby specific (I've got at least a dozen ideas for apps for search and rescue), but some just come out of left field or I look for a problem I have and want to solve.

I will also add that I use org-mode and live in emacs, so taking a note is just a couple of keystrokes away, and disk storage is cheap. I can always just archive it later, so I've never liked the idea of throwing out so-called useless ideas (was from some time/task management system, can't remember which), as I can always set the state to CANCELLED.

Now working remotely I tend to jump right into work and try to finish my projects asap, but after watching a documentary about how creative people are procastinators I tend to go for a run or watch unrelated content (avoiding politics) such as philosophy arts and history. Having your brain switching context has helped me coming up with new ideas.

I’ve had good success with Oblique Strategies:


Interesting! Do you use them regularly (e.g. weekly, monthly) or is this a strategy you apply when you have a specific problem and you're stuck?

Not even when I am stuck! I draw a card and try to work it into my biggest ideas (software product, these days). For me, it's just a fun exercise to bring something external into my internal thinking

I have to the same like everyone else. How I bring floating wild hair thoughts little more down to earth and may be "executable?" Here are some of my tactics:

1. I find someone to talk it to out loud. Even if that person isn't knowledgeable in the field.

2. Write it down as if you were doing #1 describing it to someone as if they were 5. You would be surprised how soon you find holes and/or new insights.

3. Read sites that encompasses vast knowledge of many subjects and not vertical to singular. A site I like to visit is: https://www.sciencedaily.com/ Vast latest articles and finding covering every subject.

4. Talk to people and also think in their shoes if they heard such an idea by putting yourself in their world view.

5. Find a movie that is in that realm of an idea and let your mind wonder.

6. Listen to something benign like trance/house music.

But most of all I like #1 where I talk to someone but moreover, talk to someone who has a breadth of knowledge and not necessarily vertical to any one in particular. Ideally a nerd be good.

My favorite tactic is, "just get started."

Start writing 2001 from memory, but the protagonist’s name is Bill and the killer computer is named MAL-500. “Oh, so I’ll wind up with a shitty knock-off of 2001?” No, you’ll quit writing this dumb thing way before then. But you will slip into flow, and find it easy to put this nonsense aside and get one of your good ideas moving.

(The apes are “evolved” by the Monolith by inspiring a tickle-fight. The Monolith has a creamy caramel center. The star-child takes one look at earth and yeets out.)

Create X number of bad ideas. Volume works wonders. Keep a notebook and write things down.

Dishes, legos, other mindless tasks while letting your mind wander.

I try to turn it into a game — pick a few random words, or a random time frame, or other scenario, and come up with ideas or stories around that. For example “ten years out, agriculture, global trade resurgence”. What happens? What do we build? Etc...

Tripping on mushrooms a couple times a year can do wonders. It helps me to see things in an entirely new and extremely positive light, long after any actual hallucinations. They facilitate a sort of mental reset that spurs creativity for me.

For creativity in problem solving, if the problem is well defined, I've found that light physical activity has been useful for clearing my mind and returning to the task with a refreshed perspective.

When coming up with inspiration I usually try to think backwards. Backwards in the sense that I might start with some idea which is concrete and, start considering it's more abstract forms. So, for example I would consider a pencil as a concrete thing. I might start considering writing instruments. I might then start considering HIDs. From there that's a big world to explore.

One I read in a HN comment a while back was to find available domain names and come up with ideas for them.

When I saw that my first name was available with the .chat TLD I knew it should be one of two things: a redirect to my calendly, or an immediately-available IM session with me when I'm available (just for fun).

Built the latter this morning to have an excuse to buy the domain! You can see it at Alexander.chat.

Ingenious! That should go in all your public profiles and business card.

Actually go and build one of those projects. In the process you'll get a whole bunch more ideas. Write them down somewhere as you do.

Same thing as you -- reading, looking at art, taking photos. The trick seems to be that it's easier to start up the "creative" part of my brain by engaging with work other people have done than trying to jump right in and create something myself.

I don’t need to stimulate it and in fact can’t seem to turn it off. I guess it’s a blessing but the downside is that it seems much harder for me to commit long term, compared to others, as I get drawn to some new grand idea.

Smoking cannabis legally

I thought about this pretty much constantly for a year. I wrote down everything I came up with here: https://sundayscaries.substack.com/p/nurturing-curiosity

tl;dr: combine ideas from different domains, talk with friends who have interesting ideas, work on things that interest you

Sensory deprivation. It works.

Basically, reduce all forms of stimulus and let your mind space-out without any intention.

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