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How to Fuel Your Idea Machine

How to Fuel Your Idea Machine
A stack of books

    “Reading fiction is a waste of time.”

    Have you ever heard someone spout this line of complete and utter bollocks? I’ve rarely heard anything so ridiculous said in my life. Fiction, like all the arts, is an important part of culture; both a reflective distillation of it, and the base elements that form it. Society’s collective attitudes, values, beliefs and the public memory have a symbiotic relationship with the arts.

    Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business.

    – Henry David Thoreau

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    But a practical lifehackista may not be so interested in the importance of the arts in society; what exactly is the point of reading fiction? You may be thinking, “now that you’ve brought it up, it really is unproductive to read novels! How could I have wasted so much time?”

    Well, if you’ve stopped reading, start again – and if you never did start, now is the time. Here’s why.

    Fuel Your Idea Machine

    Since these are the words used in the title of this article, you may have come to the conclusion that this is the most important reason (for me, at least). That’s true, and I find the “save the best to last” trick that some writers and marketers use a bit gimmicky.

    Before you tell me that you don’t need ideas, think again. Not everyone is an artist, but everyone inherently must be creative. It’s a necessity of a life in which you face problems on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps you need to park your car in a full carpark, or perhaps you’re losing your job, your house and your family. While the scale of these problems are totally different, they share one commonality: they can often be solved with the use of some creativity.

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    Maybe you won’t get the optimal result. Maybe you will. But solving problems is the application of creativity to reality, and in almost every instance there is a workable solution of some sort. You just have to find it.

    Sometimes you’ll find the solution and sometimes you won’t. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you haven’t found solutions in the past means that this principle is rubbish; if you deny the power of ideas, how are you supposed to use them powerfully?

    Reading books, fiction and non-fiction, fuels your idea machine. It gives you fodder to think with. The brain is essentially nothing more than a computer (albeit much more complicated); it takes an input, processes it and produces an output. In other words, you can’t create ideas without inputs. Life experiences and memories are your starter inputs; books allow you to branch out into the experiences of others, in the non-fiction section, and fiction allows you to reach the realm of fantasy – experiences nobody has really had. Fantasy breaks all the normal rules, and so do the best ideas and solutions, so what better place to start?

    If you’re worried that by sucking down other people’s ideas your somehow being unoriginal, remember that this is just fodder for your own ideas – and also, if you have any knowledge of literary criticism, remember that authorial intention and a reader’s interpretation are never the same.

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    Escapism is Good

    I’ve heard it said that all escapism is a bad thing. It’s probably what the woman who recently left her husband because of his World of Warcraft addiction muttered as she slammed the door. Everything is a bad thing in over-the-top quantities, but to say escapism is inherently bad is like saying water is poisonous. It’ll only kill you if you drink too much.

    Books allow you to escape the real world and head into another, and grok knows we need it. The proverb life is a bitch, I always imagined, was probably uttered by a wise man in a turban meditating on a mountaintop when he achieved enlightenment. The originator of this phrase found a way to sum up the ultimate truths of the universe in one line. So why not escape?

    Escaping into fiction is a fantastic way to cope with a stressful life, relax, and lower your blood pressure for a while. It’s better than some forms of relaxation and/or entertainment because it allows you to de-stress without actually turning your brain off. Unlike your physical body, your mind can be stimulated and rejuvenated at the same time!

    Enjoy a Story Without the Mind-Rot

    I love a few good television shows – Battlestar Galactica, Boston Legal, the Sopranos. Unfortunately, the advantage film has over other art forms is the same thing that is a disadvantage to your brain if you over-consume. It’s realistic; your brain doesn’t have to do any work. You just take in what has been created for you.

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    Books, on the other hand, are words on a page; there are no voices, no moving images on a screen depicting reality as if you were right there. Your mind has to create the visuals and sounds all on its own.

    If you swap out just one of your regular television shows for regular fiction reading, then you can exercise your creativity on a more regular basis. Like self-discipline, creativity can be compared to a muscle and in this particular analogy we are talking about the process component of the input-process-output model of our thoughts.

    You Can Consume More Books and Still Keep it Green

    Don’t forget, in keeping with this month’s green theme at Lifehack.org, it’s a simple and painless procedure to switch to eBooks. In fact, it’s a heck of a lot more convenient to carry around hundreds or thousands of books in your pocket on a PDA than to bring one thick novel anywhere. I think a good principle is that anything you do that leads to living a greener life will have many benefits for you, not just the environment, and this is certainly a case in point.

    The other benefit of eBook reading is that you can whip your PDA out whenever you have a spare five minutes, no matter where you are, and get more reading done that you could before. I’ve been doing this for something like six or seven years and it’s allowed me to read more than if I stuck to paper.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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