Brainstorming Advice

People have trouble brainstorming. The main reason is suppression. They don’t want to write down half-ideas. They don’t want to say ideas that might be wrong. They want to screen their ideas for quality, acceptability, clarity, not being embarrassing, not being half-baked, etc.

People spend their whole adult lives talking and even thinking with a filter. They block themselves from thinking or saying most things which are socially unacceptable or have some kind of social risk (e.g. it might be seen as dumb).

The filter screws up their brainstorming even for uncontroversial areas that lack social landmines. Even when there’s limited social danger, their thinking is still suppressed. It’s a habit. And there’s always some social danger because you could be wrong, be try-hard, be too detail oriented or not detail oriented enough, put in too much or too little effort, say things that are too simple or too complex, reveal you don’t know something you’re supposed to know (socially expected to know), and so on.

People think or claim that the reason they have trouble brainstorming is that they don’t have ideas. They ask how to get ideas. They want tips on how to come up with stuff. And in abstract, intellectually, that seems like an important area to give tips about. And certainly there is scope to come up with better ideas when you brainstorm. You can raise the average quality and insight if you know more about how to be creative effectively. But when people draw a blank, it’s suppression. If someone brainstorms 20 things and thinks they’re all mediocre, then he could use tips on how to come up with cleverer ideas. There are strategies that could help including using tree diagrams. But if someone is stuck at near-zero ideas of any quality, then they don’t need cleverer ideas; they need to stop disabling their own mind.

I’ll brainstorm some ideas about getting unstuck. This will give an example of brainstorming and potentially come up with some relevant thoughts, too.

  • write down dumb ideas on purpose. you can make a game of it – they can be silly, funny, maximally dumb, etc. you can find creative ways to be dumb. it’ll help free you and get you listing ideas. after that, 1) you’re in a mode of listing ideas 2) it shouldn’t be that hard to come up with some ideas that are better than the dumb ones already on the list. it sets a quality standard to aim to beat which isn’t very hard to beat.
  • brainstorm stuff that fits common patterns. learn various standard patterns. e.g. for brainstorming questions you can consider where, when, why, what, who, how.
  • think of a single word that seems relevant. then try to use it in a sentence. or even just write down the one word to get started. it’s better than being stuck staring at a blank page. you can brainstorm something better, like a whole thought (a sentence) later. if a single word is where you’re at so far, that’s above zero; don’t suppress it!
  • look at previous brainstorming you did that seems a bit relevant. or just look for generic patterns. you can also look at brainstorming other people have done.
  • look around for inspiration. google search, wikipedia, dictionary, books, magazines, blogs, etc.
  • get suggestions from other people.
  • take some of the stuff you already brainstormed and modify it. you can do lots of similar ideas with minor differences. don’t suppress that. don’t think it’s pointless or “too similar”.
  • don’t try to avoid brainstorming too many things. don’t worry about your list getting too long or chaotic. if you’ve had that problem at least ten times, i’ll permit you to be a little bit concerned with it, but it’s not a big deal. if you’ve had that problem zero times, then i suggest you try to cause it on purpose. see if you can make a list that’s too long. aim for that. it’ll reduce your suppression.

This brainstorming came out OK. But it’s not a very good example for anti-suppression. I’m not writing down all the steps. I’m not showing the full process. I’m doing too much in my head and writing down fairly well-formed and distinct thoughts. I’m kinda jumping straight to the good ideas. The minimum quality is too high. I can do that because i’m already good at brainstorming and I already know stuff about this topic. But don’t try to start that way. Don’t try to copy this example so that your early brainstorming looks like it. I can brainstorm in other styles too. I’ll try again but more freeform:

  • storm in brain
  • storms have lots of parts – many rains, lightnings, winds, etc.
  • make a whirlwind of things
  • make a whirlwind of ideas
  • spinning around
  • free
  • you can do anything
  • think out in the rain, wild, running free
  • when you’re in a storm, you’re closer to nature, and more free of social rules and people. it’s a common feeling/intuition people have.
  • dancing
  • people suppress their dancing a ton
  • but dance advice is like “don’t over think it, be free, just move and do whatever you feel like”
  • but people’s dancing intuition is developed to fit social norms
  • it’s like “be yourself”
  • “be yourself” is dating and social interaction advice
  • but they assume you already created yourself to be a suppressed normie
  • i don’t think they say “be yourself” to a two year old
  • “be yourself” = have more confidence that you’re already normal, so you can just follow your intuitions and do ok
  • you’re probably not broken. at least not too broken to get along with people and fit in and find a place in the world. so don’t be so scared and nervous. it’s not helping. just assume you’re OK and for most people it’ll help, you’ll do better.
  • basically suppress your social knowledge less, and just assume it’s decent, and you can do better socially
  • not much to lose. if your social knowledge is horrible crap, being a wallflower won’t fix that
  • most people can’t change all that much socially as adults or even pre-teens. lots of stuff is already kinda decided. yeah some visible stuff is changeable but a lot isn’t really. so if you’re stuck with what you are, you might as well bet on it, double down on it, etc.
  • change is possible but people are bad at it. i mean they suppress brainstorming, how are they gonna learn a new personality if they can’t even come up with 20+ ideas about some explicit issue they’re trying to learn or think about?
  • anyway, why do people suppress?
  • kids get yelled at for wrong answers
  • kids get punished for being wrong
  • people want kids to just magically know right answers without asking questions
  • people want kids and everyone else to know what they meant when they communicate poorly (or sometimes even when they communicate not at all)
  • people sometimes lie or communicate something contradicting what they actually want, and still want you to know what they really want and act according to that unsaid, even denied thing
  • kids are earnest
  • kids are curious
  • kids are honest
  • kids are bad liars
  • i mostly mean little kids. the older, the more these traits go away
  • infants don’t lie
  • toddlers usually don’t know how to manipulate yet. they try straightforward escalations like “tantrums”. they are basically saying “this is really important to me” and then escalating by saying it louder and more strongly. it’s blunt and bold and open and honest.
  • it’s not like fake tears to get what they want. “tantrums” are real. at least at first. if they work well, some kids learn to fake them. (often they don’t consciously know they’re faking. or maybe usually they know at first and stop knowing later.)
  • people learn the world doesn’t make sense and is full of unwritten social rules
  • brainstorming is open and honest, not about manipulation
  • brainstorming doesn’t fit how people have learned to think and be
  • suppression
  • blocking
  • preventing
  • holding ideas in
  • unthinkable
  • crime think
  • taboo
  • fear, shy, nervous, anxious, anxiety, potential embarrassment
  • what will people think?
  • people want to screen their ideas. check what people will think before they dare say it.
  • some stuff people can say fast because it’s pre-screened. they already have policies and intuitions about it.
  • when people get out of their comfort zone, and deal with stuff they aren’t experienced at, they get really careful and don’t want to say much in case it’s wrong. they want to screen everything
  • often people don’t know how to screen stuff
  • they doubt themselves and wonder if it’s ok or not. they aren’t sure what others will think of it
  • this comes up more when they’re outside their comfort zone, in a less usual situation or dealing with something less mainstream or typical
  • brainstorming is often trying to come up with some different ideas
  • brainstorming is for stuff you don’t already know
  • you can brainstorm inside your comfort zone too
  • you can be good at chess and brainstorm chess moves
  • you can be good at mountain biking and brainstorm about that
  • lots of brainstorming is related to learning something you don’t already know
  • people could practice brainstorming about stuff that’s easy for them
  • start there where it’s easier
  • external prompts can help
  • joe is good at architecture but if i say “ok pick an architecture topic and brainstorm about it” he might get stuck
  • but if someone asks joe a question, he might have no trouble answering
  • how do you decide the right size for buildings? what factors should you consider? which factors apply to both height and footprint, and what is just for one or the other?
  • when joe hears that, maybe he can brainstorm 50 factors that matter.
  • joe might just answer 3 important factors. that’s common.
  • but if he wanted to, if he was in the right headspace and had the right attitude, maybe joe could list 50. he has enough knowledge to do 50.

That’s 70 bullet points (and 8 on the first list). Compare the lists. Do you see some differences? I bet you could brainstorm some differences!

The more stuck you are, the more you need to brainstorm more in the style of the second list, not the first list. Or go even further towards informality, incomplete thoughts, sort of gesturing in the direction of an idea, and writing multiple points to try to get a handle on one idea. There’s still a lot of room to be less coherent or organized than the second list, yet still make useful progress and be well above zero coherence.

Although the second list is messy, it’s got some decent stuff on it. I could choose some of the points and write an article related to them. That wouldn’t work well with random points from the list. But that’s fine. You can brainstorm some stuff that won’t all work well and then be selective later when deciding what to use. Write out a lot of stuff first, then sort through it afterwards. If you try to be critical and picky while brainstorming, you’ll suppress. Instead, do a separate, second phase where you look at your list critically and try to pick out some useful ones to focus more attention on.

When reviewing what you brainstormed, picking favorites generally works best. Don’t try to narrow it down until only the best points are left. Eliminating most of the points takes too long, is hard, and involves looking at bad things. But it’s just brainstorming; of course there will be many imperfections. Instead, look for important ideas and main points. Focus your attention primarily on useful stuff, not on the bad parts.

Brainstorming Bad Ideas

Don’t worry about your brainstorming points being too low quality, disorganized or numerous. If you actually have that problem, then you can decide how to handle it after the problem occurs. For most people, particularly the people who try to brainstorm but draw a blank, it never happens. Getting stuck at the beginning of brainstorming is the main problem for most people.

When brainstorming, do you need some sort of filter instead of making totally arbitrary, random ideas? Yes, literal random ideas with zero regard for quality would be bad. But no one ever does that. People who brainstorm successfully just reduce their self-filtering enough that they can come up with a decent amount of ideas. They don’t end up with anything resembling literally no filter. For basically everyone, their subconscious does more criticism and filtering than necessary for productive brainstorming, even when they do their best to disable their criticism and filtering. People don’t know how to get their idea quality too low for brainstorming. That’s actually hard to do because it requires a lot of control over some very basic, subconscious habits of using logic and reason that you have.

People do come up with bad ideas sometimes, but it’s not caused by letting their thinking be too freeform or unfiltered. One of the causes is thinking of bad ideas on purpose. Sometimes people do that to try to “prove a point” by showing that if they stop filtering they will brainstorm dumb ideas. So they come up with dumb ideas on purpose. People will also come up with dumb ideas on purpose when they don’t want to be doing what they’re doing. E.g. sometimes they do it for school assignments they hate. Suppression is more common when people don’t want to be doing something, but intentionally coming up with wrong answers and dumb ideas is an alternative. That’s a different process than just being too unfiltered so that your ideas get too incoherent or illogical.

Another way people come up with bad ideas is by simply not knowing better. They don’t know how to filter some types of bad ideas. They don’t understand something so they make mistakes. Heavy filtering and suppression can help hide this, since it’ll suppress most ideas, including both mistakes and good ideas. If you refuse to try or to come up with any ideas, then people (including yourself) can’t find out if you have misconceptions in your understanding of the topic. If you hide your ideas, then your ideas – which are potentially wrong – are hidden from judgment.

Sometimes it helps to brainstorm privately, but that isn’t as useful as you might expect. It’s more common to hide stuff from both yourself and others rather than just others. Most of what people hide from others is what they’re hiding from themselves. It’s their own opinion and judgment that they care about and fear the most. People don’t want to reveal they’re dumb to themselves or see themselves as dumb.

People also come up with bad ideas because they have a bias or agenda. They’re trying to reach a certain conclusion that they like or want in some way, so they (subconsciously) force their thoughts to favor that conclusion or attack alternatives. Even when your favored conclusion happens to be correct, this style of thinking works poorly. It’s not rational.

Practice Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a skill you can practice. You should brainstorm on purpose, repeatedly. You’ll get better at it if you decide to brainstorm about something and then sit down and actually do a brainstorming session. Actually doing it means spending time brainstorming and writing down ideas.

I suggest setting a timer for 5 minutes. You should start your practice with small stuff where 5 minutes is a reasonable amount of time. Don’t try to copy the length of the second list above! If your ideas are flowing and you’re writing stuff down, you can continue after the timer goes off until you reach a natural stopping point and feel done. If you get stuck, don’t stop before 5 minutes is up (you need some time to actually try), but do stop when the timer goes off. You can do longer brainstorms for bigger topics after you have practice doing short brainstorms and have experienced success a bunch of times.

If you spend 5 minutes and write little or nothing, that’s OK. If that happens only sometimes, you can keep practicing and try to build on your successes. If you get stuck like that every time, think about what’s going wrong.

You can see failed brainstorming attempts as gathering information about a problem. After brainstorming doesn’t work, you could write down what it felt like or what you remember about the attempt. You could write down any thoughts you can remember having while trying to brainstorm. You may find patterns, like your thoughts keep going off topic and then you don’t write them down because they are irrelevant to what you’re trying to brainstorm about.

If you get distracted by irrelevant thoughts, you could try freewriting – basically writing, journaling or brainstorming about anything with no topic rules or other limits. That would get you practice writing something. Note that freewriting is allowed to be disorganized and chaotic – you can keep changing topics every sentence. (If your current thought is unrelated to your previous thought, I’d recommend starting a new paragraph to write it. If you have a bunch of one-sentence-long paragraphs because you keep changing topics, that’s OK.) Or you could take any other type of writing that you can do and try doing that and see how it feels and what it’s like, and try to understand why it works better than your brainstorming.

Brainstorming can be used for pretty much anything. If you read something and you’re not sure what it’s saying, you can brainstorm ideas the author could mean. Or just brainstorm ideas on the topic and then later try to figure out which ones the author might mean. Even if you think you know what an author was saying, you can brainstorm about it in case you missed something initially. There could be some more subtle points that you didn’t catch right away. In a debate, you can brainstorm arguments for each side, as separate brainstorming sessions, so that you actually think about things from the other side’s perspective. And you can also brainstorm about which thing to say next. You can brainstorm about meta issues like which points to prioritize communicating and why. Anything that could be useful to know is a reasonable topic to brainstorm about.