How do you find inspiration for great ideas? A few smart minds explain.


Need an idea? (Bigstock)

“I think all good things come out of non-intentional conversations. It’s not like ‘Hey I need to sit down and talk to you about this specific thing. It’s let’s just brainstorm and shoot the breeze and then that’s when all the best stuff comes. I even built a space in my home that tries to encourages those types of conversations. It’s a music studio basically. One whole side of the studio is all whiteboard. When we’re playing music of course everyone puts up song notation and stuff. But I keep erasing it and then writing people in to just have talks. There’s no real specific focus. It may be what’s next in your career. That’s where the best [stuff] comes.” – John Battelle, author and Federated Media founder

“Personally, very simply, the idea that you should always do different things. You cannot be part of the pack because what’s the point. So distinction is important, it forces you to think doubly hard. You put a few things on the wall, then you come back and you say ‘I hate them all.’ Maybe I like one thing. You build on it, you build on it, you build on it, be super critical. I drive my people insane because I tell them no, it’s not different enough. It’s not cool enough. It’s not nice enough.” Aereo chief executive Chet Kanojia

“I think it’s paying attention and noticing. Wayne Gretzky was a good hockey player because he focused on where the puck was going not where the puck was and having a sense of where the puck is going partly by your own history and your own instincts but mostly by meeting people and talking to people and getting a sense of where the momentum is building.” — Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, chairman of Case Foundation and Revolution

“I get my inspiration from meeting people and hearing about their life’s journey. I remember a few specific ones — a father in a NYC emergency room, watching his daughter suffer from cystic fibrosis — that had significant impacts on my life. There is something raw and very beautiful about each life story that makes me feel connected to humanity and driven to improve the world.” – Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and chief executive, 23andMe.

“My most plentiful source of new ideas is studying companies from other industries – how these entities overcame their very different set of challenges regularly yields transferable ideas for our business. I read all the business publications (Fortune, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Economist, Harvard Business Review, etc.). I watch CNBC daily (mostly morning), I read some business books (Malcolm Gladwell’s for example) although I read much more fiction which I think helps creativity, I talk to people about their jobs and truly listen, I occasionally get copies of business school case studies, and I annually judge a business plan contest at NYU. Finally, I formally and informally help start-up companies.”M. Scott Havens, Time Inc., senior vice president, digital

“I try and have lunch with someone from a different industry or a different walk of life or perspective at least every couple weeks and ask them in-depth questions about what they do, what they’re seeing. I have a friend who’s totally obsessed with Skid Row in Los Angeles. He makes documentaries on Skid Row and Los Angeles and he tells me in-depth stories about the struggles of families and homelessness and I ask him questions about education and what do these kids do. Do they go to school, do they not go to school. What do you think about school? That’s just one example. I learn so much from a guy like that.” – Chris DeWolfe, co-creator of MySpace, chief executive of SGN

“I think a lot about seemingly unsolvable issues.  If I cannot find their answers soon, I usually sleep for several hours. Then, I awake at midnight and have found good ideas (answers) for the issues. It seems that my brain continues to think and simplifies the complex matters during my sleep.”Shunpei Yamazaki, Semiconductor Energy Laboratory  president, holds over 3,400 patents

Do you have any tricks to finding your best ideas? We’d love to hear in the comments.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland | April 11