Capitalizing on Ideas 🌳
"Hmm, I should probably start a new project. Now, what on earth should I do?"
The description of this article was somewhat a lie: In reality, both execution and ideation are extremely hard (or are they?). So many of us—including me—have decided to start a project out of the blue, spending hours considering possible problems to solve and whether or not an adequate solution already exists. The project, naturally, ends in frustration and with nothing to show in the end.
When starting on a project, the most important element is an organic idea. Regardless of how genius or foolish the idea is, I have found that the most enjoyable, interesting, and impressive projects stem from organic ideas.
"Great, so what exactly is an organic idea?"
The best ideas are ones that come "out of the blue," that is, ideas that are not forced by a brainstorming session or hours of sitting in front of an empty document and whiteboard. According to Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University and a meta-learning educator, when the brain is not focused intently on a particular task, it "enters into a natural default mode of diffuse thinking" 1. In this state, the brain is free to generate new ideas by connecting previously acquired knowledge and observations.
Most of us are already familiar with this state: we know that studying a unit's material the night before an exam is not conducive to scoring well, and we also know that being repeatedly exposed to information—say, words in a foreign language—is an excellent way to learn. In fact, jadeocr leverages a similar effect.
Jadeocr illustrates the importance of organic thinking in two ways: The app encourages the mind to naturally develop a vocabulary base through the aforementioned spaced-repetition, technique, allowing users to slowly acquire foreign language vocabulary while giving enough time between review sessions to allow the brain to engage its diffuse mode. Additionally, jadeocr itself was a product of organic thinking.
The idea for jadeocr came to me during my fourth-period Mandarin class in my sophomore year—notably, it was not the result of any brainstorming session. I was simply sitting at my desk, practicing writing a handful of simplified characters to prepare for a coming vocabulary quiz. I wasn't worried about scoring well on that particular quiz, but I wanted to earn a perfect score on the upcoming midterm exam, and the only thing holding me back was a few writing mistakes.
As an aside, writing Chinese characters requires some attention to detail; some notorious examples are 末/未, 复/夏, 换/挽, 口/囗. The last one, to be fair, has a radical, but my point still stands.
As I started to search for apps that could help me prepare for the next midterm exam, I realized that each of them had some shortcomings that I was not willing to deal with. Eventually, I came to terms with the fact that no existing app satisfied my needs, so I set out on building my own with some help from a friend.
The idea was organic, and as a result I was genuinely passionate about the project: I didn't mind working on it for eight or more hours per day during my summer break, and the result of my work was a product that I was proud of. Moreover, I was willing to build it again—nearly from scratch—to improve my code quality, add more features, and share it with more people.
We all generate ideas this way: We all have those points where we think, "if this existed, my life would be so much easier." The two most difficult parts of bringing these ideas to fruition are capturing the idea and getting started.
Capturing ideas—taking note of them when they occur—consists of two primary steps: Recognizing the idea and capturing it. Recognizing ideas takes practice; the next time an idea comes to mind—the next time you wish "I wish this existed" or the next time you think "it would be cool if this was a thing"—make a mental note of that idea. Thoughts are ephemeral, however, so an even better idea is to make either a physical or digital note.
With ideas in hand, the hardest step is now getting started. Everything else will fall into place after a project has started: Specifications, technologies, and design can all more or less figure themselves out without too much effort. This doesn't mean building a project doesn't require significant amounts of time and effort—it does. However, with an organic idea, the passion required to drive a project forward is often self-sustaining.