Tony Sheng     Projects     Contact

Overcoming idea envy (and how to have ideas)

fet-ish noun an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

I used to have a fetish for ideas.

I worshipped them and the people who had them. I’d sit at work alt-tabbing between my excel spreadsheet and hacker news to see if any great ideas emerged today as I crafted pivot tables. Wow, I’d think anytime I saw one, what an amazing idea. I’d frantically scan the writeup and comments for any clues about how they came up with the idea.

While I probably didn’t know it at the time, this came from a place of envy.

en-vee noun occurs when a person lacks another's superior quality, achievement, or possession and desires it.

I didn’t have ideas. And it seemed to me that the people with ideas had the freedom. If only I had an idea (and a technical cofounder, haha) I could be successful and happy like them.

Over time, I inevitably came up with some ideas. None of them were groundbreaking, but they were well formed enough for me to opportunistically say, “look at this article! they stole my idea!” How embarrassing.

I’ve probably read a hundred books on startups. Some say ideas don’t matter, some say ideas matter. I used to think these were important opinions, but it’s pretty obvious now that having the right idea is what matters: it’s just hard to generate the right idea, know when you have the right idea, and have the skills to execute on the right idea.

I believe in numbers and gradual improvement, so I figure, come up with lots of ideas. That’ll improve the probability that I’ll generate a good idea and my ability to come up with ideas.

One week, I came up with fifteen startup ideas a day related to Y Combinator’s Request for Startups. I hacked together a random prompt generator and just did it each morning. It’s a decent list (and public, if anybody wants to read it). Over 100 ideas on startups in industries YC wants to fund.

I also write down any ideas that I observe in my everyday life on a wunderlist called “Ideas.” Accumulation is probably around 200 ideas since last year. All related to problems I encounter in everyday life.

These ideas came from my desire to make something meaningful in the world. I’ve yet to make much out of any of them, but their existence has had an unintended psychological effect on me that I haven’t really contemplated before: it makes me feel secure. If I’m unsure whether what I’m working on should be my highest priority, I can scan my list and confirm that this is the best one to work on right now. If something fails, or I worry about something failing, I have tons of ideas waiting for me. If a brilliant investor or team wants me to work with me in a space I’m interested, I’ll be ready with a bank of ideas (caveat: not currently seeking). Most importantly, I know I can come up with ideas and can focus on executing the important ones instead of envying the ideas of others.

Ideas aren’t just important for entrepreneurs, they’re important for people. The emptiness of having no idea is a feeling of helplessness, an utter lack of agency. Cultivating a habit of ideas will help you cultivate your relationships with others, your care for yourself, you capabilities at work, and your insight as an entrepreneur.

The ability to come up with ideas isn’t a fixed characteristic, either. It’s a skill that you can cultivate, and there are strategies to train that skill. I’m going to write about these strategies in the future and append them to this post. So keep your eyes peeled.

If you enjoyed this post and want more like it, join thousands of readers on the weekly newsletter.