What to do when you have TOO MANY ideas

What To Do When You Have TOO MANY IDEAS

How do you transform your creative chaos into something manageable? How do you distinguish the diamonds from the pea gravel? How do you know when it’s the right time to nurture an idea, and when it’s better to just leave it fallow?

I struggled with these questions for a long, long time.

When I left corporate publishing, I wanted to do something “different,” but I wasn’t sure what it should be. Here are just a few of the ideas I considered:

  • Should I start a girls’ comics magazine? Or a children’s book company?
  • Should I open a bookstore? Or a tea and rice ball cafe?
  • Should I go back to school and get an MBA? Or maybe an MFA?
  • Should I become a book packager, a literary agent, or an author?
  • Should I switch gears entirely and go into finance?????

I researched all of those questions seriously. In some cases, I wrote business plans or made significant headway on the first phase of the goal.

But I always ended up questioning myself, getting side-tracked by other ideas, and abandoning the original plan.

After a while, the pattern was very apparent to me, and I felt like an abject failure. Why were other people able to take an idea, persist with it, and carry it to fruition? What was wrong with me?

What Was Wrong With Me

In order to figure out why I seemed doomed to Sisyphean idea generation, we have to look at the subtext behind the question, “What should I do when I have too many ideas?”

The phrase “too many” is a negative judgment. The question itself assumes that it is not good to have many ideas, projects, or interests. Without realizing it, I was interpreting my creativity as a liability.

Because I thought there was something wrong with me, I unconsciously struggled against my natural tendencies. Although on the one hand I was creative, on the other hand I was squashing my ability to channel this creativity in productive ways, because I was refusing to see it as an asset.

As the Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön writes,

“When resistance is gone, the demons are gone.”

Once I started changing that habit of asking myself, “What is freakin’ wrong with me?,” and started developing the habit of asking, “What’s going right? What’s making me happy?”….

Everything changed.

Before doing anything else, you’ve got to reframe the question.

Here’s the same question, posed in a compassionate, curious way:

I have lots of ideas. How can I organize them and move forward on them most productively?

Step Number One

The first step is both simple and essential: write your ideas down.

It is critical to get your ideas out of your head. This accomplishes two things: first, it frees your brain from worrying about remembering all your ideas, and gives you a lot more free space in your mental hard drive.

When you have a lot of ideas but you’re keeping them all in your head, without realizing it, your brain is expending a lot of energy trying to keep track of everything. This creates a constant, nebulous feeling of anxiety — definitely not conducive to creative work.

Second, once you have your ideas down on paper, your ideas gain a certain substance. It becomes easier to evaluate which ideas to pursue, and which to discard or hold for later.

I’ll talk more below about how to distinguish between good and not-so-good ideas, but suffice to say for now that the very first step in that process is always to write out each of your ideas as comprehensively as you can, as soon as you can.

Where should you write your ideas?

That’s up to you. It could be Evernote, or Google docs, or a journal, a notebook, or index cards. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a system that works for you and you’re consistent about it.

In her book on creativity, the choreographer Twyla Tharp says that she has actual physical boxes for each of her projects. In each box (labeled with the name of a specific project), she puts notes, clippings, artwork, videos, books, or any tangible item related to that project. As Tharp says,

“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”

In Tharp’s case, yes, she does have a literal box, but in the metaphorical sense, you need some sort of organizing principles and structure to your idea generation process in order to make it most effective.

Now what? How do you make sense of all those ideas?

Once you have a system for capturing all your ideas, you now need a system for filtering them. In other words, deciding which ideas are keepers, which ideas to explore further, and which ideas to move forward on NOW.

Filter #1 is a stark thought experiment.

Imagine you only had one year left to live. Which ideas or projects would you want to finish in the last year of your life?

This helps put things into perspective. It helps you understand what is absolutely most important to you, what you want to do on behalf of your loved ones, and what you can actually accomplish in the near term. These factors are extremely effective ways to zero in on what to do.

Filter #2 is a prioritization exercise.

I outlined this exercise in my blog post two weeks ago about prioritization. Clearly decide for yourself what your top two to three goals for this year are. Write them down and put them somewhere where you can see them every day — for example, a Post-It on your computer, a note in your wallet, or a page taped above your work table.

Now, when you have an idea and you’re trying to figure out whether to pursue it, ask yourself: “Is this going to get me closer to my two most important goals for this year?”

If not, set it aside for now. This doesn’t mean you have to set it aside forever, of course! But now is not the right time.

Filter #3 involves determining your rationale.

Get to the root cause for each idea. Ask yourself, what’s driving me? Is it something I want to do for myself, or someone I love? If the answer is yes, it’s worth considering.

If it’s something you want to do because you think it’s what “the market” wants, or it’s what you’re “supposed to” do, or because you think it will impress someone… run the other way. It is most definitely not an idea to pursue.

Filter #4 is to create a set of rules for yourself.

This filter helps you counteract “Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.” It’s especially important for big ideas that may cause you to shift gears or lose your focus on your current priorities.

My rules are simple. In fact, there’s only two of them:

  • When I have an idea, I must write it down in my idea notebook.
  • I must let every idea gestate for one week before I take action. If my enthusiasm has waned after one week, that’s a sign. I shouldn’t pursue it, at least not now.

Always be biased to action.

Once you decide which idea is most important for you right now, get started as soon as possible. Make a back-of-the-envelope plan and start working on the very first phase.

Taking action consistently and frequently on your most important ideas and projects is critical, because that momentum will motivate you.

I’ve said this before, but I will keep saying it till the cows come home: being motivated doesn’t cause us to take action. Taking action causes us to get motivated.

If you struggle with feeling consistently motivated, stop worrying about your motivation. Focus on consistently taking action, whether you feel like it or not.

Another reason why you want to take action consistently is because, if you let an important idea lie dormant for too long, it may lose its spark entirely.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this in her book Big Magic, where she describes an epic novel she worked on for more than a year. Then there was a family crisis and she had to stop working on it for several years. When she finally got back to the manuscript, she found it was impossible to start writing again.

The fire for the story was completely dead and she couldn’t resurrect it.

Say Thank You to Your Monkey Mind

My final word on “too many ideas” is that you need to be aware of this challenge as a potential sign of resistance.

Our brains deeply resist being pushed outside of our comfort zone. Working on ambitious creative projects always pushes us outside of our comfort zone. One way that the fearful part of our mind can easily sabotage us is by dangling an enticing new idea in front of us.

“Oh!” we think. “THAT’S an interesting idea! That sounds easier and more fun and way more exciting than what I’m currently doing!”

But if you’re prepared, you won’t be derailed. Instead, you’ll thank your brain for its endless inventiveness.

Then you’ll write the idea down in all its glorious detail, look at your calendar, and tell yourself, “OK, I’ll revisit this in a week or so. Now it’s back to the drawing board.”

And get back to the work at hand.


“People Buy Your Joy”

I just finished reading a wonderful little book of career advice for illustrators called “I Just Like to Make Things: Learn the Secrets to Making Money While Staying Passionate About Your Art or Craft” by the agent Lilla Rogers (who is herself an exceptionally successful artist).

The title of Chapter One stopped me in my tracks: “People Buy Your Joy.”

Amen to that.

Have you ever been around someone who is unabashedly in touch with their joy? Someone who lights up with delight when they talk about their work, who seems fully grounded in themselves and their direction, who never worries about “helping the competition” because sharing their knowledge and inspiration brings them such obvious pleasure?

People like that are rare — and magnetic.

What is even more rare, though, is people who got that way without going through struggle and rejection. There is a very, very high likelihood that at a certain point, you’re going to offer your heart to the world and it’ll respond (at first) by saying, “No, thanks.”

J.K. Rowling once tweeted about the painful period when she was submitting the first Harry Potter manuscript to publishers: “I wasn’t going to give up until every single publisher had turned me down, but I often feared that that would happen.”

Moments like these can be a critical turning point.

Do you redouble your commitment to your work?

Or do you start trying to figure out “what the market wants” and rejigger yourself into something “more commercial”? (Or, worse, give up on yourself?)

If rejection is more likely to make you question yourself than become even more determined, you’ve got to employ every tool in the arsenal to keep in touch with your joy.

  • Meditate.
  • Exercise.
  • Practice your craft religiously.
  • Take breaks.
  • Be in nature.
  • Spend time with your favorite people.
  • Laugh.
  • Find mentors.
  • Do things you love, every single day.

As David Lynch says in his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, “Experience the joy of doing…. Your friends will be very, very happy with you. Everyone will want to sit next to you. And people will give you money!”

One of my most important insights has been that persistence and self-confidence are “the killer combination,” when it comes to building a successful creative career.

Persistence is hard. But if you consciously seek out the supports that enable you to persist, your self-confidence grows.

As your self-confidence grows, it becomes easier to persist.

Both self-confidence and trust in yourself that you will persist bring you joy.

People buy your joy.


A Tale of Two Artists: Talent versus Confidence

A Tale of Two Artists: Why Doesn’t Talent Equal Confidence?

A long time ago, back when I was an editor at Scholastic, I worked with two artists who were strikingly different.

One was preternaturally talented. I was always astounded at the natural fluidity and sheer delightfulness of his artwork.

The other artist had taken up illustration a little later in life and was still in the process of refining her style. I usually had to give her a lot of feedback because, to be honest, her work was uneven. Sometimes it was awkward and needed to be completely reworked.

This wasn’t the only difference between them. The other difference was their level of confidence.

The first artist, the one whose work seemed so effortless, was plagued by constant self-doubt. He did not take critiques well, to put it mildly. He tended to take any feedback personally, so I had to carefully phrase my suggestions to avoid him shutting down completely.

The second artist was much more even-keeled. Even though her work wasn’t as good and I had to ask her for substantial revisions, she never took it personally; she just went back to the drawing board, reworked her stuff, and came back to me after she had methodically worked through all the critiques.

I stopped working at Scholastic a long time ago, but I still check in to see how certain people I used to work with are doing. What is fascinating to me is that the artist who was so talented but had low self-confidence is not publishing at all right now. His career seems to have stalled.

The other artist has been chugging along. Her work has improved tremendously, and she’s becoming more and more successful. She’s published at least six original books and has more in the works.

I think about these two artists often because it is such a remarkable case study of how talent and confidence don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other.

What is Confidence?

Confidence is a state of mind where you respond to the world from a positive standpoint, seeing critiques and roadblocks as a way to learn and improve, not as a referendum on your value as a human being.

You have a lack of confidence when you believe that “constructive feedback” means that there is something fundamentally flawed with you, not simply something you need to improve in your work. Although you may not realize it consciously, you tend to think along the lines of, “Well, that just proves that I’m not a good artist/writer/person.”

Of course, the reality is that all of us have weaknesses, and all of us have the ability to improve — even in the areas of our greatest strengths!

Where Does a Lack of Confidence Come From?

I think it usually starts from messages we learned as a child. If we were strongly encouraged to focus on external validation — like getting good grades, winning the game, getting awards, etc — we eventually begin to depend on those external signals to believe that we are worthy.

If we were praised for being “smart” or “good” rather than complimented on how hard we worked or how persistent we were, we start to restrict ourselves to activities where we can be guaranteed to appear “smart” or “good.”

As a result of this, critiques or mistakes begin to feel like terrifying failure or rejection, rather than problems that can be solved.

You may recognize this as the phenomenon popularized by psychological researcher Carol Dweck. She pioneered the concept of the “fixed mindset” versus “growth mindset.”

People with a fixed mindset believe that your talents are a fixed entity. For example, you’re “good at reading, bad at math,” and there’s not a lot you can do about it.

People with a growth mindset believe their abilities are mutable. In other words, even if they started out struggling with math, if they work at it long enough and keep trying, they are eventually going to get much better — maybe even really good at it!

Having a growth mindset is highly conducive to confidence. Because instead of thinking “I don’t want to try unless I’m pretty sure I’ll be good at it” (which is almost impossible if you’ve never done this particular thing before), you think to yourself, “I want to try this, but since I’ve never done it before, I’m going to have to work hard at it in order to become good at it.”

The question is, how can you grow your confidence, or start developing a growth mindset, when you’ve been stuck in a mental pattern of self-doubt?

Happily, there are specific, concrete exercises you can do to transform those mental patterns of self-doubt and create a deep-seated sense of confidence.

How to Build Your Confidence

#1: The Success Log

The first exercise is to keep a success log. This is a journal or spreadsheet or even just a daily mental exercise that you do every day, where you ask yourself two questions:

“What are three things I did well today?”
“What’s the most important thing I plan to do tomorrow, and how can I improve how I do it?”
People who have a lot of self-doubt tend to talk to themselves very negatively. The key is to start developing the habit of focusing on the positive.

In the beginning, it may feel funny, especially if you’ve never asked yourself on a regular basis, “What did I do well today?”

Trust me, though — developing this habit of talking to yourself in a compassionate, encouraging way will pay enormous dividends in your creative work.

Personally, every night, when I lie down in bed, the first thing I try to do is review three things I did well during the day. Then I think of one important thing I plan to do the next day and how I can improve the way I approach it. Finally, I take a deep, slow breath, and “let go” of my planning mind.

#2: Focus on What You CAN Control

The second “hack” for improving your confidence is to focus on goals you can control, not goals you can’t control.

What’s the difference between the two? Goals you can control involve the process. Goals you can’t control involve the results.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re a writer, and you want go get a book deal. That’s the result you want.

Well, you aren’t a publisher, so you can’t control whether or not you get offered a book deal.

But you CAN control the process of submitting your book for a deal. You can control:

  • how much effort you put into researching the best way to craft a book proposal;
  • how hard you work on your book proposal or manuscript;
  • how much feedback you get from thoughtful peers and how carefully you follow up on revisions;
  • how many proposals you send out;
  • how consistent you are in developing your platform (i.e., your website, your marketing outreach, your fan base)
  • how conscious you are in building a positive mindset and finding ways to overcome the discouraging moments (which are inevitable).

Those are a lot of things over which you have control.

The last point — building a positive mindset and finding ways too overcome discouragement — is the most important. Unfortunately, for many people, it is the part they pay least attention to.

Don’t be one of those people. Take your mental well-being very seriously. Make it your first priority and that’s what will enable you to move forward relentlessly on the other “process” goals.

#3: Find Your Peers

My final tip is to find a peer group and meet with them regularly.

Many creative types — whether they’re an artist, a writer, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur — spend a lot of time working by themselves. It’s lonely, and worst of all, it can be self-reinforcing.

When you spend a lot of time alone, you’re in your head a lot. The longer you wait, the harder it gets to reach out and forge connections.

On the other hand, having the opportunity to talk on a regular basis with people to whom you can relate is a huge boon. It gives you the chance to unload all your fears, vent about your frustrations, and ask the questions that are keeping you stuck — and you can trust that you’ll get an empathetic response.

We NEED empathetic connections. People who understand us and support us. And those people aren’t necessarily our friends and family. In order to move forward in significant ways, we need to reach beyond the people who are close to us by chance, and develop close relationships more purposefully, with kindred spirits.

This takes time. You must be willing to invest time and energy in these relationships in order to reap their full rewards. This is why I recommend that you “meet with them regularly.” Once a week would be ideal, but at the very least, once every two weeks or once a month.

Start a writing circle. A mastermind group. An artists’ meetup.

Over time, these relationships will become a major bulwark to your self-confidence.


How to Override Your Self-Doubt

Override your self-doubt: 3 simple ways to vanquish your fear and accomplish your biggest goals

A librarian friend of mine recently told me about a conversation she’d had with a particularly prolific writer-artist. When she asked him how was able to publish so many books, he replied, “Constantly overriding my self-doubt.”

His choice of words really struck me.

It’s more common for people to say, “I have to overcome my self-doubt.” “Override” is a bit different.

The dictionary definition of “override,” after all, is:

“To interrupt the action of an automatic device, typically to take manual control.”

This is a perfect metaphor for what happens in our brains, particularly when it comes to emotions like self-doubt and its close cousin, fear.

We tend to think that we are in control of our actions and behavior, but when it comes to strong emotional states, the most primitive part of our brain — the most “automatic” part — controls us.

This primitive part of the brain is called the amygdala, and it governs our programmed response to fear. Emotions tied to fear, like shame, anxiety, sadness, and self-doubt, trigger a cascade of physical effects in our body: a heightened heart rate, shallow breathing, pain in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, etc.

When we think of this “automatic fear effect,” we tend to envision them in their most dramatic form, like when we are afraid of public speaking and are forced to address a big crowd.

But sometimes the fear response is much more subtle, and very easy to misinterpret.

For instance, if you’re trying to take on a big project — let’s say, write a book, learn a new skill, or start a business — you may start off in a burst of enthusiasm and then find yourself inexplicably feeling uncomfortable. You realize you have a vague physical sensation that something isn’t right.

And your default, even unconscious assumption might be, “Hmm…. Something is wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t try this after all.”

Self-doubt has reared its head. And if you haven’t learned how to “take manual control,” you will succumb to it.

What that artist was saying, when he explained to my friend that the secret to his success is “constantly overriding self-doubt,” is that he has mastered certain mental habits that allow him to push past those feelings of unease.

And that’s the critical point to emphasize: it’s not that successful creative people don’t have self-doubt, it’s that they’ve learned how to deal with it. As Maya Angelou said:

“The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself.”

Take Manual Control

So what are the mechanisms by which you can “seize manual control” over those deep-seated, unconscious emotional forces in your brain and “override your self-doubt”?

The truth is that there are only three basic principles you need to master, and they are very easy to understand. The first is ACTION, the second is ATTITUDE, and the third is ACCOUNTABILITY.

Action

The Buddha observed, “What you think, you become.”

If you think you’re not the kind of person who is capable of writing a book, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of writing a book. If you think you’re not the kind of person who could successfully start a small business and quit her job, you will be the kind of person who is not capable of successfully starting a small business and quitting her job.

“OK,” you might argue, “but what if I’d like to write a book but I’ve never done it before? And I have no proof that I can do it? I can try to do it, but there’s no way I can know in advance whether or not I’ll succeed.”

You are correct that the future is entirely unpredictable. This means that you have no proof that you can write a book — but on the other hand, you also have no proof that you can’t write a book.

Because you have no way of knowing what will happen in the future, the only thing you can control is the present.

You have total control of the present moment.

When you are trying to tackle a challenging project and you start losing your confidence, ask yourself, what’s the smallest, simplest, concrete action I can take right now?

The fear or discomfort is not going to go away completely, but you’ll be amazed by how much it dissipates when you shift your focus from worrying to doing. And miraculously, big things happen because of the accumulation of many tiny steps.

STEP NUMBER ONE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO ALWAYS DEFAULT TO ACTION.

When you find yourself feeling anxious or uncomfortable, look at your plan, decide what task makes sense to do now, and do it.

Attitude

It is human nature to compare ourselves to others, and all too often, to think that others have it easier than we do. They are more talented, luckier, more well-adjusted, smarter… etcetera, etcetera.

Correspondingly, when you are embarking on a big new project, it’s natural to look at other people who’ve accomplished similar things to try to figure out how they did it. But all too often, we skip straight to the finished product and assume that somehow, they didn’t struggle as much as we do.

The truth is that everybody struggles. But there are big differences in people’s attitude toward the struggle.

Certain mindsets are especially toxic toward creative endeavor:

  • “If only I had the resources/parents/background that Person X has, this would be so much easier.”
  • “If I were really meant to succeed at this, it wouldn’t be so hard.”
  • “I don’t want to look stupid.”

On the other hand, here’s the attitude that will enable you to push through any obstacle, no matter how massive or impenetrable it might be:

  • “It’s going to be hard. I’m going to feel afraid.”

By acknowledging in advance that trying new things, creating new work, learning, and pushing yourself into uncharted territory is uncomfortable, you will have a much higher likelihood of succeeding than if you try to suppress or ignore your fear.

In order to keep evolving and accomplish your goals, there’s no circumventing it — you must move toward your fear.

When you acknowledge your self-doubt, you are using your rational brain to override your emotional brain. Your emotional brain is freaking out, but your rational brain is talking it through, saying, in essence, “Hey there! I know you’re scared! Guess what — all these uncomfortable feelings don’t mean you’re doing something wrong, they just mean you’re a normal human being who’s afraid of trying something new. But I really want to try this new thing, so I’m going to help us move forward despite these scary feelings.”

Start by simply noticing your emotions. When you feel uncomfortable, say to yourself, “Oh, I feel uncomfortable.”

When you feel self-doubt, say to yourself, “I’m feeling self-doubt.”

When you feel afraid, say to yourself, “I feel afraid.”

Then, take a “timeout.” Take several long, deep breaths. Focus on your breathing.

Finally, go back to Principle One, decide what action you are going to take, and as you do it, consciously acknowledge that it might feel scary and uncomfortable, and that’s OK.

Rinse and repeat.

You’ll notice two results: one, you’ll start making progress on your goal; and two, your fearful feelings will slowly start to subside.

STEP NUMBER TWO, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO CONSCIOUSLY ACCEPT THAT YOU WILL FEEL FEAR, AND COMMIT TO MOVING FORWARD WITH IT.

Accountability

Everything I’ve described above may make sense to you on an intellectual level, but intellectual understanding doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior.

Peer pressure and social norms, on the other hand, absolutely lead to changes in behavior.

If you want to put yourself in a position where external forces are conspiring to help you succeed, do whatever you can to find a community of kindred spirits.

You can’t conquer your fear in a vacuum. Trying to do things on your own almost guarantees that you’ll hit a brick wall.

Sharing your goals and fears with supportive human beings, on the other hand, offers a trifold return:

  • first, you get the encouragement of people cheering you on;
  • second, you get the incentive of having publicly stated your intention and now being held accountable for making progress;
  • third, human beings are hard-wired as social animals, and will calibrate their behavior based on the community surrounding them.

So if you want to evolve and challenge yourself in specific ways, you must surround yourself with other people who are doing similar things.

If you don’t know any people who are aiming toward the same types of goals as you, you must go out and look for them. Maybe you’re trying to start a business and you don’t know any business owners, or you want to break into children’s books but you don’t know any people in publishing.

In this day and age, if you put in some effort, you can absolutely find supporters, confidantes, and mentors no matter where you live or who you know.

Here are a few ways to build your network: Take a class. Join an industry association. Start a meet-up. Hire a coach. Attend events. Create a local or online group.

It doesn’t matter whether your network is one person or 100 people. What matters is that you commit to sharing your dream and being completely honest with at least one other human being (hopefully a few more than that), and that you ask for help and give them regular updates on your progress.

Of course, it takes time to build the relationships that will sustain your creative work over the long haul. You can’t expect to join a group or find a mentor and immediately get unconditional support and thoughtful personal insight. You must invest in these relationships and be willing to expose your innermost struggles.

If you do find and nurture a community of friends and mentors in the area where you want to grow, the time and energy you invest will pay off exponentially.

STEP NUMBER THREE, WHEN YOU’RE TAKING MANUAL CONTROL OVER YOURSELF, IS TO FIND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT AND UNDERSTAND YOUR CREATIVE WORK, AND SHARE YOUR JOURNEY WITH THEM.

Do you have a big goal, but feelings of self-doubt?

How you are overriding your own self-doubt? Or are you having trouble doing it?

Let me know in the comments.