The Idea-Monger: No Genius Required
    By Mark Changizi | June 7th 2010 06:42 AM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How...

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    You are an idea-monger. Science, art, technology – it doesn’t matter which. What matters is that you’re all about the idea. You live for it. You’re the one who wakes your spouse at 3 AM to describe your new inspiration. You’re the person who suddenly veers the car to the shoulder to scribble some thoughts on the back of an unpaid parking ticket. You’re the one who, during your wedding speech, interrupts yourself to say, “Hey, I just thought of something neat.” You’re not merely interested in science, art or technology – you want to be part of the story of these broad communities. You don’t just want to read the book – you want to be in the book. …not for the sake of celebrity, but for the sake of getting your idea out there. You enjoy these creative disciplines in the way pigs enjoy mud: so up close and personal that you are dripping with it, having become part of the mud itself.

    Enthusiasm for ideas is what makes an idea-monger, but enthusiasm is not enough for success. What is the secret behind people who are proficient idea-mongers? What is behind the people who have a knack for putting forward ideas that become part of the story of science, art and technology?

    Here’s the answer many will give: Genius. There are a select few who are born with a gift for generating brilliant ideas beyond the ken of the rest of us. The idea-monger might well check to see that he or she has the “genius” gene, and if not, set off to go monger something else.

    Luckily, there’s more to having a successful creative life than hoping for the right DNA. In fact, DNA has nothing to do with it. “Genius” is a fiction. It is a throw-back to antiquity, where scientists of the day had the bad habit of “explaining” some phenomenon by labeling it as having some special essence. The idea of “the genius” is imbued with a special, almost magical quality. Great ideas just pop into the heads of geniuses in sudden eureka moments; geniuses make leaps that are unfathomable to us, and sometimes even to them; geniuses are qualitatively different; geniuses are special. While most people labeled as a genius are probably somewhat smart, most smart people don’t get labeled as geniuses.

    I believe that it is because there are no geniuses, not, at least, in the qualitatively-special sense. Instead, what makes some people better at idea-mongering is their style, their philosophy, their manner of hunting ideas. Whereas good hunters of big game are simply called good hunters, good hunters of big ideas are called geniuses – but they only deserve the monicker “good idea-hunter”.

    If genius is not a prerequisite for good idea-hunting, then perhaps we can take courses in idea-hunting. And there would appear to be lots of skilled idea-hunters from whom we may learn.

    There are, however, fewer skilled idea-hunters than there might at first seem. One must distinguish between the successful hunter, and the proficient hunter – between the one-time fisherman who accidentally bags a 200 lb fish, and the experienced fisherman who regularly comes home with a big one (even if not 200 lbs). Communities can be creative even when no individual member is a skilled idea-hunter. This is because communities are dynamic evolving environments, and with enough individuals, there will always be people who do in fact generate fantastically successful ideas. There will always be successful idea-hunters within creative communities, even if these individuals are not skilled idea-hunters, i.e., even if they are unlikely to ever achieve the same caliber of idea again. One wants to learn to fish from the fisherman who repeatedly comes home with a big one; these multiple successful huntings are evidence that the fisherman is a skilled fish-hunter, not just a lucky tourist with a record catch.

    And what is the key behind proficient idea-hunters? In a word: aloof. Being aloof – from people, from money, from tools, and from oneself – endows one’s brain with amplified creativity. Being aloof turns an obsessive, conservative, social, scheming status-seeking brain into a bubbly, dynamic brain that resembles in many respects a creative community of individuals. Being a successful idea-hunter requires understanding the field (whether science, art or technology), but acquiring the skill of idea-hunting itself requires taking active measures to “break out” from the ape brains evolution gave us, by being aloof.

    I’ll have more to say about this over the next year, as I have begun writing my fourth book, tentatively titled Aloof: How Not Giving a Damn Maximizes Your Creativity. (See also and for other pieces of mine on this general topic.) In the mean time, I would be grateful for your ideas about what makes a skilled idea-hunter. If a student asked you how to be creative, how would you respond?


    It's often said, but true-- ideas are cheap.  I meet a lot of idea mongers.  Ideas are like ideas for a novel, everyone has a few and some people have more than a few.  Even in the sciences, ideas are thrown around like mad-- wild theories, possible methods, "wouldn't it be neat" scenarios.

    What differentiates those called 'genius' isn't the quality or frequency of their ideas, but their ability to decide which ideas can be tested (which might be what you call 'hunting') and then-- most important of all-- the ability to put their ideas into practice.

    In short, geniuses put in a hell of a lot of work.  We may only see 'the idea', but without work, ideas are nothing.

    As Howard Aiken said, "Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats."

    I completely agree.   I can't even count how many times I have met people who have an idea for a website - and they are often pretty good ideas - and think that is all there is to getting rich.   They even offer to let me implement their idea for half the equity!!   :)

    But as Napoleon said, "Between a battle lost and a battle won, the distance is immense.  And there stand empires" - so if someone really wants to win in a world of a billion ideas, do what Napoleon did not;   avoid distractions and bring a lot more artillery.
    Mark Changizi

    What differentiates those called 'genius' isn't the quality or frequency of their ideas, but their ability to decide which ideas can be tested (which might be what you call 'hunting') and then-- most important of all-- the ability to put their ideas into practice.

    Mostly agree. In addition to being testable (90% of my ideas have to be abandoned because of the inability to get the needed data for a test), the thing that's harder to put one's finger on is whether the idea is "exciting", "creative", "neat", etc.  As in math, there are effectively infinitely many truths out there, most of which are utterly uninteresting. The more "artistic" aspect of science is finding ideas that are non-incremental, that overturn existing thought, and so on. That kind of idea-seeking is difficult to teach.

    A wonderful article, Mark! "Idea-monger"......I like it! : )
    You’re the person who suddenly veers the car to the shoulder to scribble some thoughts on the back of an unpaid parking ticket.
    Have we met?  :-)
    LOL Patrick! That's what I thought when I first read the article. Mark has described me to a tee!

    It's like, Mark have you been spying on me all of these years? LOL ;-)
    Mark Changizi
    Seriously, I wouldn't label following you two around with binoculars "spying". I'd call it, "learning by example."
    Oh, that one deserves a 5, Mark! ;-)
    Great book title: Aloof: How Not Giving a Damn Maximizes Your Creativity.
    Although Detached might be less haughty than Aloof :-)
    But nevertheless true; the best ideas come when you don't give a damn about the consequences, but care about the ideas.

    How to be creative is somewhat like asking someone to teach you their obsession.
    In my experience those moments of inspiration come from alternating intense activity with periods of daydreaming or meditation. The problem is put into a background process but only if it is an important problem, otherwise it just gets binned. Jacques Hadamard wrote a book about mathematical creativity and came up with similar advice - alternate between focussed thought and expansive thought.

    Truly original ideas are rare. When I was researching my own book I started reading the writings of artists of that extraordinarily fertile period that saw cubism, surrealism, constructivism, futurism and more. If you read, say, the "Manifeste Dimensioniste" you may well come away feeling, like I did, that nothing very original has been done in art since that time - merely different manifestations of the same ideas. Ideas that have a direct link back to Riemann's own creative spark in recasting the nature of geometry.

    Is there anywhere that can construct (?) a course that can teach how to make those creative jumps across subject boundaries?

    I'll have to think about it.......
    Mark Changizi

    As for a course on "creative jumps across subject boundaries," the ALOOF book idea emanated from writings I was doing for my students, trying to teach it to them. And much or all that I've written on it has ended up here at SB, including being grouped at my own blog here...

    (Now, I'm internally -- in my head -- debating whether to really write the book. We'll see. If I were to die next year, perhaps I'd rather have worked on some new proper science idea, and not my first-person-perspective ideas for how to get ideas. We'll see!)
    Idea-monger vs. idea-hunter: I believe I understand your point yet I think there might be better terms than these to describe the idea you're suggesting. Hunters track down and kill things; isn't this entirely the opposite of the type of person you're endeavoring to describe? An idea-fount (source) seems to me to be a more appropriate moniker. Or, heck, even creative thinker seems to be apropos. (Can we consider brilliance without considering creativity?) That said, the differentiating factor between the knowledge-seeker or idea-fount may be continuous lateral thinking.

    Since our minds like to follow familiar neuronal paths, it seems likely that lateral thinking would benefit from continually divergent thinking. In essence, once you've connected two dissimilar things and found a rewarding connection, then your brain would begin to hunt down—to use your metaphor—additional superficially unrelated events, experiences, ideas while seeking that next psychological reward. Consequently this would become self-rewarding behavior.

    Anecdotally, during my reading travels across brilliant thinkers, it seems that great idea-founts tend to be what I would term polyglot thinkers in the sense that they think across the languages of different disciplines quite easily. They find connections among all areas and do not silo themselves into one or another. Even if they publish only in one area, they find balance in other seemingly unrelated areas. Additionally, I might also examine if an increased stress level affects this type of thinker during their lifetime (somewhat related to the dandelion/orchid effect).

    Interesting line of inquiry; I'd love to hear more of your process as it evolves.

    I don't think most people stay still long enough or listen deeply enough to have ideas. Ideas require a sort of critical mass- you have to be full enough for the bits to make traction -- sparks! I think getting ideas *and* making something of them requires a combination of curiosity, stubbornness, and willingness to be wrong. Ideas change you get them on the ground for a test drive, and, let's face it, some ideas are just plain goofy in their unrefined state -- so I think looking and feeling klutzy has to be OK, too.

    Put another way, when I'm working creatively, I'd rather be a dolt with super vision than a loof held down by my own GUI. When I'm out in public with the other inmates, aloof has it's conveniences.

    Idea-based "progress" can be tricky. Giving up is too easy, without built-in philosophical incentives like believing in the validity of exploration for exploration's sake, balanced with encouraging practicalities like having concrete and reachable goals. The ephemeral and the physical need each other.

    Damn typos. Yes, English is my first language.

    Great post Mark. Reminds me of:

    Note: "H creative" means historically creative, ie. major breakthroughs.

    Margaret Boden, The Creative Minds: Myths and Mechanisms.

    Memory, as noted earlier, stores items in the conceptual space within the mind. The more richly structured (and well-signposted) the space, the more possibility of storing in a discriminating fashion, and of recognizing their particularities in the first place.


    Consistently H-creative people have a better sense of domain-relevance than the rest of us. Their mental structures are presumably more wide-ranging, more many-levelled and more richly detailed than ours. And their exploratory strategies are probably more subtle and more powerful.


    Even Mozart needed twelve years of concentrated practice before he could compose a major work, and much the same seems to be true of other composers.


    This commitment involves not only passionate interest, but self-confidence too. A person needs a healthy self-respect to pursue novel ideas, and to make mistakes, despite criticism from others. Self-doubt there may be, but it cannot always win the day. Breaking generally accepted rules, or even stretching them, takes confidence. Continuing to do so, in the face of scepticism and scorn, takes even more.

    Check out The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun ( O'Reilly Media 2007) as he opens his very interesting book precisely by the theological explanation for epiphany moments rather than hard work. Overall a good book for creative people wanting to debunk the historically biased ideal of geniuses.

    See also Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity by Dean Keith Simonton (ISBN 0195128796 - Oxford University Press 1999 ) which is much more technical but still also emphasis the "process" rather that the mere quality of its participants.

    Here's a favorite relevant quote by Einstein:

    "My interest in science was always essentially limited to the study of principles, which best explains my conduct in its entirety. That I have published so little is attributable to the same circumstance, for the burning desire to grasp principles has caused me to spend most of my time on fruitless endeavors."

    quoted in Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's Maps, p. 241

    Andrea Kuszewski
    I am aloof, and I don't give a damn. I guess I am a genius.

    Don't forget, though, geniuses are often super-resilient as well, from years of getting your ass kicked around by the status quo, and still continuing on with your creative, albeit often unpopular (at the time of first conception) ideas.

    Great article!
    Einstein once said that the big difference between him and other is that most people when they find a needle in the haystack will stop at that, he would keep looking.

    Mark Changizi
    Gotta be aloof from even needles.
    Be a loof.

    Science needs more loofs.
    Mark Changizi
    I'm a charter member of the Loof Association: "Bringing Loofs Together".
    I'm a charter member of the Loof Association: "Bringing Loofs Together".

    Hah!  I was loofing for Britain before you were born.

    Mind you, he who loofs last, loofs longest.
    "Bringing Loofs together"?

    Is that like a meeting of Laconic Loners?