Try the patented Ideamizer (not really patented)

June 17th, 2010

This is part of a series on ideas for today. There’s already an introduction, an article on artistic movements, another on market efficiency, and one about filling your life with well-designed objects.

No idea comes out of an invisible ether. Whatever thought you may have about something new, it came from your experiences, articles you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, jokes you’ve heard. People say this all the time but it bears repeating:

No idea is new.*

That’s not a disappointing realization. Rather, knowing how your thoughts come about can be a powerful tool to harness.

You should build and nurture a library of ideas.

Why? You need a cultivated collection of information to help you connect disparate pieces of data and come up with new ideas: new stories, new business opportunities, new ways to live your life.

Books used to be dynamic objects. Readers not only collected them but they wrote all over the margins and on blank pages (alright, we still do). They also collected favorite passages and pasted them into a scrapbook for inspiration. Somewhere over the years scrapbooks morphed into artistic expressions and collections of life memories.

Sometime after the proliferation of the copy machine, the filing cabinet became the store of collected ideas. Usually poorly organized if organized at all, they became a stereotype for the absentminded professor.

Fortunately those of us currently living have access to cheap storage mediums, powerful computers, and the internet. Scanners too. We can suck up as many thoughts as we have time and energy to procure.

There’s a lot of different ways to build your library on your computer:

  • Save web pages, PDFs, scanned documents, etc. into folders on your computer and search them with Spotlight. If you take advantage of the file folder system this can be just as powerful as a managed database.
  • Use a document management application like Evernote, Yojimbo, or my personal favorite…
  • DEVONthink. DEVONthink’s strength is that it can find semantic relationships between documents, meaning it will find documents with similar collections of words (not necessarily similar sentences or phrases), and the more information in the database, the better the connections.

Use whatever feels comfortable, as not every option is ideal. I still don’t have my library organized to my satisfaction, but because it exists I can at least use it.

What should go into your library? Whatever interests you, inspires you, makes you contemplate, makes you want to learn more, makes you agitated. Most certainly the library needs articles and ideas from your areas of interest and work (e.g. a gardener have tips on growing, stories about other gardeners, etc.). But to really be useful it needs seemingly unconnected articles, information from areas that don’t normally interest you. For example: Wikipedia historical pages, biographies of athletes, mathematical mysteries, Mongolian wrestling, you get the idea.

Also consider content you think might be useful later, for when you are in a different place in life. You probably already have big enough hard drive that you can be reckless in your saving. You don’t need everything, in fact you shouldn’t have everything, but you should at least devote 15% of the library to subjects which you wouldn’t usually have an interest. For serendipity. That’s the whole point of a library.

The screenshot above was taken from my own library. There are very few things in this world that don’t interest me, so my library is pretty far-reaching. I try to organize whatever I’ve collected into folders based on subjects I use to mentally organize. I started out grouping by general topics, but I realized that there are certain subjects that I separate from others. For example, I could have one folder for business and economics, but I think about those subjects along different lines: the technology industry is one solid subject, with enough to say and dwell upon Apple Inc. for it to have several of its own folders, some business ideas I group with economics concepts while others group into an entire industry, and still others into individual companies (you can see IKEA has its own folder). It gets even more complicated for cultural ideas.

But if I want to write an essay on city culture, all of the articles related to urban life are grouped together, and can be used to quickly move to related topics (city economies, neighborhood dynamics, the culture of specific cities like Los Angeles) if needed.

My library, combined with good old-fashioned thinking and conversation with people smarter than me, gives me fertile land for a crop of new ideas. And it couldn’t hurt to start your own.

* Wrap your mind around how to make new ideas when nothing is new.

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