How to Have Better Ideas

The best way to come up with good ideas: don’t get stuck on other ideas first.

Paul Graham’s excellent essay Keep Your Identity Small explores why thoughtful discussions about certain topics are difficult:

“I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.”

And he explains why that matters for idea generation:

“The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”

The link between your identity and your actions is so powerful that it’s a common habit-formation strategy. Simply saying you are a specific kind of person—the kind of person who exercises, for example—helps cement the habit. 

It’s something you can investigate for yourself. Next time you find yourself in an argument, try and slow down and examine how you feel when someone challenges your idea. You feel attacked! 

Even if someone asks a question about an idea, or a piece of your work, the visceral reaction is defensive. I feel it myself. It’s something that’s very hard to prevent, but we can learn to recognize and accept it.

If we have that kind of reaction in small arguments, it’s no surprise we react poorly when someone attacks part of our identity.

Keeping our identities small helps us have better ideas because we’re open to more possibilities. 

The reverse is also true. Allowing our identities to grow impedes our ability to think with clarity.

Thinking clearly is hard enough. 

We would do well to avoid anything that makes it harder still.