How to Become an Idea Machine

Choose YourselfI am a firm believer that – for many reasons – coming up with ideas is one of the most powerful skills we can all develop (or improve upon) right now. It’s the process of generating ideas that can be challenging, and by improving on that, we can eventually learn how to improve the quantity and quality of our ideas.

James Altucher talks about this in Choose Yourself, his latest, must-read book. Altucher has experienced some major successes and many more failures, which means he has a lot of wisdom to share. He had a number of habits and routines in place when things were going well for him, and looking in his rearview mirror, he realized they were no longer a priority when his fortunes turned. One of those habits was being an “idea machine.” By constantly coming up with fresh new perspectives, he created life-changing opportunities for himself, personally and professionally, as well as for his friends and network. And we can do same!

However, before you can start churning out ideas like Thomas Edison, you need to follow Altucher’s lead and train yourself to do so.

This involves developing an “idea muscle” – and keeping it in shape. Altucher cites the example of Stephen King who, in his book On Writing, describes an accident he once had that prevented him from writing for several weeks. As he began to write again, something wasn’t right. His writing muscle had atrophied. He needed to work his way back up to the level of amazing, bestselling author.

If this can happen to Stephen King, one of the best in the world at what he does, it can happen to anyone, with any kind of muscle.

Altucher writes, “What are the benefits of having a functional idea muscle? You will become an idea machine. No matter what situation you are in, what problem you see in front of you, what problems your friends and colleagues have, you will have nonstop solutions for them. And when your idea muscle is at its peak performance, your ideas will actually be good, which again means you will be able to create the life you want to lead.”

Not surprisingly, it will take a little bit of focus to get on track, and he offers up several ways to hone your craft. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Read daily: He suggests two hours, but you can work your way up to that. Reading means learning, and learning naturally prompts ideas. These days, I also get a lot of learning in via podcasts. BONUS: Read magazines and publications that have nothing to do with your business or personal interests.

2. Write down 10 ideas a day: These ideas do not have to be home runs, and they can be about anything. As Altucher suggests, “The purpose is not to come up with a good idea. The purpose is to have thousands of ideas over time. To develop the idea muscle and turn it into a machine.” The important thing is to make sure you’re writing down 10 or more. You want your brain to sweat.

3. Collisions: Some of the best ideas come from collisions between newer and older ideas. (One of his examples is Facebook, which is a “collision” between the internet and stalking.) Over time, develop a process for keeping track of your ideas so they can be revisited (I use Evernote). You might find that one of your newer ideas makes an older idea stronger.

I want to emphasize that developing and exercising your idea muscle can take a lot of patience. When you first try out this new game of writing down multiple ideas every day, keep the bar low. Send your inner critic packing. If you’re going to get anywhere with this, you need a relaxed approach. Have fun with it.

If you currently have a process for generating ideas, I’d love to hear about it. And if reading this has motivated you to create one, let me know what you come up with.



  1. by Jack Quarles on September 5, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Derek – thanks for this excellent post. My daughter and I used it for her homework last night… she was stuck for ideas and I said: let’s think of 10 ideas really fast and then see if any of them are good. She had fun with it… and it worked!
    So one method I’d recommend is a timed brainstorm session on a specific topic – probably no more than five minutes, and set a target number of ideas.

  2. by Derek Coburn on September 5, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks Jack – for reading and for the nice suggestion!

  3. by Kerrie on September 8, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Awesome, Derek! Thanks for sharing. I need to get back to using Evernote. I love my moleskins but Evernote is easier to keep track of.

  4. by Derek Coburn on September 9, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Thanks Kerrie! Yes- I love me some Evernote! 🙂

  5. by Joe Cassandra on September 30, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    Hey Derek,

    Just heard you on Trent’s podcast and had to check out Cadred myself.

    I just got turned onto Altucher’s stuff recently and actually started carrying a waiter pad around to write ideas on. I’ve broken my streak a couple times for writing 10 ideas a day but have kept at it, and you definitely see results slowly but surely.

    And it’s fun to think of stuff, and it can be fun, “how to improve a toilet” “10 new tv dramas”. I get a kick out of it.

    Thanks Derek,

  6. by Derek Coburn on October 1, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Hey Joe – Thanks for stopping by and it’s nice to meet you! I would read an article for 10 ways to improve a toilet. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

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