I first encountered the word “ideation” when I took Shawn Blanc’s Focus Course in January 2017, kicking off a new, and markedly transformed, season of my time at Swarthmore College after returning from studying abroad in Costa Rica the semester before. Shawn introduces Focus Course students to the practice of ideation by asking them to—get ready for it—”Write down 10 ideas.” He gives you some possible topics (10 people you want to get to know better, 10 books you wish existed, 10 books you hope never exist…) and sends you on your way.
So… “brainstorming”, right? Basically, yeah. And, at the same time, there was something about approaching this process as “ideation” that unlocked something for me that “brainstorming” had never unlocked before. Maybe it’s just the words—”ideation” sounds inspiring to me, like a fountain of ideas, where “brainstorming” sounds, well… *stormy*. And *brainy*. What about the *mind*? The heart?—but the thought of “ideating” energized me, and when I tried “ideating” my visions of what my ideal semester might look like, what exciting and unexpected things I might be doing… I came up with a list that was, indeed, exciting and unexpected. What’s more, many of the things on that list actually ended up happening! And many of them wouldn’t have, had I not first ideated them. The “marked transformation” of my time at Swarthmore I mentioned above is due in no small part to the introduction of ideation into my toolkit. That first ideation in Shawn Blanc’s Focus Course was a key link in the causal chain that led to my living a significantly reimagined semester.
Whether you call this ideating or brainstorming (and really, it makes little difference to me—it just took the different name to get me to see this), I invite you to see that there is a *really important* process here that can transform our thinking and our lives if we make the time to do it *intentionally*.
How exactly is ideation so transformative? *Let me ideate the ways…*
- It is a tool for finding parts of “the territory” not yet (consciously) on our “maps”
- It brings subconscious knowledge into the realm of the conscious
- Ideation, in an **impressively short amount of time**, can have an **impressively large impact on overcoming “stuckness”** in many forms
- Ideation can help us decide what to write about [it is a powerful tool for prewriting]
- Ideation can help us decide what to *do*, by helping us realize what options we even have
- Ideation can help us “feel miraculous” [link a.m.b.], inspiring us to act with confidedence [link e.y.], by showing us how much more we know than we know we know [link… …someone]
- More on ideation as prewriting: you can ideate a bunch of associations [finding the associations you didn’t know you had], then filter through these associations for the things that feel most imporant, then start clustering these associations into key and related points, then start seeing if, and how, they might hang together in an argument, then going back and ideating all over again…
- Ideation helps you discover, and remember, connections
- Ideation is fun, it feels good—**ideation can change your mental state from one of frustration and “stuckness” to one of joy and excitement in a matter of minutes**, which is useful even if the thing you’re ideating about isn’t the thing you’re trying to do, and *especially* if it is
- Ideation is adaptable: a vast range of situations and problems can be shaped into questions or prompts that are useful to ideate on
- Ideation helps you *know yourself better*—the associations you come up with serve as a window into the way things are linked together in your mind
- Ideation is “cheap”: it takes very little time, and no preparation—and yet it frequently yields significant rewards
…I feel like I could keep going, and I also feel like I may have started to convince some folks? 🙂
That list was, genuinely, “ideated” in the way I usually “ideate”: I didn’t plan it in advance, I just started writing. I didn’t delete anything from the list, just kept adding. Writing it took about 8 minutes: I wrote quickly, made an effort not to evaluate the ideas as I went, and made an effort to write everything which came to mind about the value of ideation (my ideation “topic”).
I’m not saying ideation is any kind of “complete solution” for any particular class of problems—there are certianly things it’s not and things it can’t do. I’m simply saying it’s a *powerful* and often underappreciated tool for advancing the things we care about. If it’s not something that’s already in your toolkit, I recommend adding it.
In fact… before you read any further, whether you’ve done this before or not, go spend 8 minutes in The Most Dangerous Writing App (which will delete what you write if you stop typing for more than 5 seconds—a great way to turn off your inner editor), and *ideate a list of topics you could ideate about* (meta-ideate!) for eight minutes. (If that seems long… it’s not! Trust me—you can do it!) If there’s something else you’d rather ideate about—do that instead. Any topic will do. Scroll down when you get back.
How did that feel? Is there anything on your list that wasn’t in your head when you started? Are you feeling any more creative than you did before? Did you think you were going to be able to come up with ideation topics for a full eight minutes? Were you actually? (If you “failed” MDWA—which I’ve done *plenty*…—was there anything you came up with before that point that you didn’t anticipate? Did you try again?)
I hope that gave you a taste of ideation. There are many ways to do it—I like using MDWA because it keeps me out of my evaluative mind and in my generative mind. If you didn’t like it—either the ideation or the use of MDWA to do it—that’s okay. I imagine the “law of equal and opposite advice” applies here just as much as anywhere. If you did, then congratulations on finding a useful new tool—I hope having done this serves you well. 🙂
A year and a half or so after I first encountered Shawn Blanc’s use of the word “ideation”, I came across it again, this time in adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy. If we are to improve the world and the state of social relations within it as we aspire to do, she tells us:
We have to ideatate—imagine and conceive—together.brown, p. 19
Tangibly, there are many ways the practice of “collaborative ideation” might look that I think have not yet been imagined. Perhaps we need mediums devoted to supporting this practice.
I hope for this blog, and particularly this section, to cause more collaborative ideation to exist in our world. With this section of my blog I’m inviting you—reading this right now—to ideate with me, with others, with each other.
I’m doing this by sharing some of what I’m ideating in its raw, unfiltered form. I may make minor edits for readability, and I may on occasion choose to omit things if I think doing so is likely to have have a better impact than not doing so. And, as much as I can, I will leave the ideation I post here untouched, unedited—the actual stuff that I download from MDWA or scribble out in some other medium.
I realize sharing such ideation is a vulnerable thing to do, because it gives you—and me—a window into the associations in my mind. That’s exactly why I’m doing it: I hope to inspire you to share the associations in your mind, to share your ideation, too. ❤
Revisions 2018-12-23: Minor edits, quote formatting, added excerpt. 2022-08-09: Fixed MDWA link. 2022-12-23: Fixed MDWA link (again 🙃).