A Technique for Producing Ideas

In the foreword to James Webb Young’s book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, Keith Reinhard asks, “How can a book first published in the 1940s be important to today’s creative people on the cutting edge?”

The answer lies in the question that inspired Webb’s book, “How do you get ideas?”

Webb argues that the production of ideas is a process, just like the production of cars.

… the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

The formula is simple but not easy.

First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it.

Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.

That’s the same reason Warren Buffett has no problem sharing the secrets of investing in his shareholder letters (I recommend the real thing, but if you’re pressed for time, you could do worse than the Cliff Notes version.)

Training the mind requires that you learn principles and methods.

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.


So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

Echoing Einstein, Webb believed that the key to creativity could be found in new combinations of old things.

With regard to the general principles which underlie the production of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important.

The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.

This is, perhaps the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas.


The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.


Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Young expands on the notion that combinations, and thus relationships and connections between ideas, are the key.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

The process he advises involves 5 steps.

While we will all be familiar with each individual step, it is more important to recognize their relationship and “grasp the fact that the mind follows these five steps in definite order.”

1. Gather Raw Material

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general.

Part of this is what you set out to do when you create an idea and part of it is a life-long curiosity.

“Before passing on to the next step there are two practical suggestions I might make about this material-gathering process.”

The first is that if you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.This is simply to get yourself a supply of those little 3 X 5 ruled white cards and use them to write down the items of specific information as you gather them. If you do this, one item to a card, after a while you can begin to classify them by sections of your subject. Eventually you will have a whole file box of them, neatly classified.

The second suggestion is that for storing up certain kinds of general material some method of doing it like a scrapbook or file is useful.

You will remember the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the master detective spent his time indexing and cross-indexing the old bits of material he gathered there.

2. The Mental Digestive Process

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

3. Unconsciously Process
Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

4. A-Ha

Now, if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

5. The Final Stage

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

Still curious? Read A Technique for Producing Ideas.