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How to Get Ideas

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A revised and expanded edition of a bestselling classic--more than 90,000 copies sold of the first edition
This new edition includes to completely new chapters
Cleverly weaves together exercises, stories, quotations, and illustrations to offer a fun and practical guide to idea generation
How to Get Ideas shows you--no matter your age or skill, your job or training--how to come up with more ideas, faster and easier. You'll learn to condition your mind to become "idea-prone," utilize your sense of humor, develop your curiosity, visualize your goals, rethink your thinking, and overcome your fear of rejection.
Jack Foster's simple five-step technique for solving problems and getting ideas takes the mystery and anxiety out of the idea-generating process. It's a proven process that works.
This expanded edition of the inspiring and enlightening classic features new information on how to turn failures to your advantage and how to create a rich, idea-inducing environment. Dozens of new examples and real life stories show that anyone can learn to get more and better ideas.

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16 Chapters

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1 Have Fun


He who laughs, lasts.

Mary Pettibone Poole

Sometimes when reading Goethe I have the paralyzing suspicion that he is trying to be funny.

Guy Davenport

Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow.

Oscar Wilde

It’s not by chance that I list having fun as my first suggestion on how to get your mind into idea-condition. Indeed, in my experience it might well be the most important one.

Here’s why:

Usually in creative departments of advertising agencies a writer and an art director work together as a team on a project. In some departments and occasionally in the ones that I headed, three or four teams work on the same project.

When that happened in my departments, I always knew which team would come up with the best ideas, the best ads, the best television commercials, the best billboards.

It was the team that was having the most fun.

The ones with frowns and furrowed brows rarely got anything good.

The ones smiling and laughing almost always did.

Were they enjoying themselves because they were coming up with ideas? Or were they coming up with ideas because they were enjoying themselves?


2 Be More Like a Child


A child is a curly, dimpled lunatic.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are more bores around than when I was a boy.

Fred Allen

Youth is such a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.

George Bernard Shaw

Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.

Sam Levenson

Charles Baudelaire described genius as childhood recovered at will.

He was saying that if you can revisit the wonder of childhood you can taste genius.

And he was right; it is the child in you who is creative, not the adult.

The adult in you wears a belt and suspenders and looks both ways before crossing the road.

The child in you goes barefoot and plays in the street.

The adult punches the ball to right.

The child swings for the fences.

The adult thinks too much and has too much scar tissue and is manacled by too much knowledge and by too many boundaries and rules and assumptions and preconceptions.

In short, the adult is a poop. A handcuffed poop.

The child is innocent and free and does not know what he cannot or should not do. He sees the world as it actually is, not the way we adults have been taught to believe that it is.


3 Become Idea-Prone


That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that a wrong one.

Samuel Johnson

Everyone is a genius at least once a year; a real genius has his original ideas closer together.

G. C. Lichtenberg

Man can live without air for a few minutes, without water for about two weeks, without food for about two months— and without a new thought for years on end.

Kent Ruth

Nobody understands (yet) how your brain—a physical thing—can produce an idea—something that is not physical.

All we know is that it happens. Perhaps it happens to you less often than it does to other people. But since it has happened to you a few times we know that there’s no physical deficiency—no genetic mutation in your brain, for example—that’s preventing you from getting ideas. You can get them. That’s proven.

So the only thing we have to figure out is why you’re getting too few of them and then work on getting more of them.

When I was a kid I hung around with a guy named Johnny-Boy Boyd. JB was a klutz. Accidents just seemed to happen to him; if one didn’t run into him, he ran into it.


4 Visualize Success


The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get to the office.

Robert Frost

The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.

Lily Tomlin

When I go to the beauty parlor, I always use the emergency entrance. Sometimes I just go for an estimate.

Phyllis Diller

I want you to imagine a steel beam about one foot wide and one hundred feet long.

Let’s say I take that steel beam up to the top of a forty-story office building and lay it across to the top of a forty-story office building on the other side of the street.

Now here’s the deal: If you walk across that beam from one building to the next I’ll give you $100.

If you’re like most people you’ll say forget it. “Walk across that narrow piece of steel forty floors up? No way. I could lose my balance and fall.” And you probably would have too.

Now I go across the street to the other building and hold your twelve-week-old baby girl over the side and tell you that unless you walk across that beam right now I’ll drop her.


5 Rejoice in Failure


It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.

Gore Vidal

The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God’s chillun, but that as soon as he has any luck he owes it to the Devil.

H. L. Mencken

I picture my epitaph: “Here lies Paul Newman, who died a failure because his eyes turned brown.”

Paul Newman

To swear off making mistakes is easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas.

Leo Burnett

Here are five reasons why you should make failure a friend:

1. The only way to know that you’ve gone far enough is to go too far. And going too far is called failing.

But if you don’t go far enough in searching for an idea—if you don’t, in other words, fail—you can’t be sure you’ve got the best idea.

So never fear failure or try to avoid it. Embrace it. Rejoice in it. It’s a sign that you’ve gone far enough.

Race car drivers know this in their bones. They even have a saying about it:

“The one sure way to find out if you’re going fast enough is to crash.”

Cooks know it too.

Nearly everything they make has an “Oops, we’ve gone too far” point to it.


6 Get More Inputs


It is now proved beyond doubt that smoking is one of the leading causes of statistics.

Fletcher Knebel

Knowledge is power, if you know it about the right person.

Ethel Watts Mumford

We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.

H. L. Mencken

Over the years I worked with hundreds of creative people in advertising agencies. These were people who got ideas for a living. On demand. Every day.

They came in all shapes and sizes and colors and signs and personalities. One had a doctorate in anthropology, one never got past third grade. They came from close families and from broken homes, from penthouses and from ghettos. I worked with gays and straights, with extroverts and introverts, with flashers, drunkards, suicidals, ex-priests, ex-touts—the list goes on and on.

But they all had two characteristics in common.

First, they were courageous, a subject I will deal with in the next chapter.

Second, they were all extremely curious. They had an almost insatiable curiosity about how things work and where things come from and what makes people tick.


7 Screw Up Your Courage


Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.

Franklin P. Jones

I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

Woody Allen

No call alligator “long mouth” till you pass him.

Jamaican proverb

As I said, courage and curiosity are the two character traits all creative people seem to have.

But why do some people have these traits and others don’t? And what can you do about it if you don’t?

In the previous chapter we talked about curiosity and how to do deliberately what people who are curious do naturally.

But how can we become more courageous?

“An idea is delicate,” said Charles Brower, the head of an advertising agency. “It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.”

I think this is why many people seem bereft of ideas.

They’ve run into too many sneers and yawns, they’ve heard too many quips. And so they’ve said the heck with it and don’t even try to come up with ideas any more.


8 Team Up with Energy


Due to rising energy costs, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned


I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.

Samuel Goldwyn

Teamwork is essential—it allows you to blame someone else.


We’re all in this alone.

Lily Tomlin

Painting and writing and composing and sculpting— indeed, physically creating most forms of art—are, like brushing your teeth, jobs best done alone.

But when you’re trying to get an idea, it often helps to do it with a friend.

Not simply a coworker or an acquaintance. A friend.

Or with a couple of friends.

The different experiences and frames of reference and points of view and backgrounds and needs and bits of knowledge other people bring to the effort often open doors to rooms you might not otherwise have known about.

And sitting inside one of those rooms, smoking a big fat cigar and looking swell, might well be an idea that solves your problem.

For make no mistake:

There is strength and spice and adventure and excitement and vitality and life and newness and power and energy in variety; in sameness there is lethargy.


9 Rethink Your Thinking


Who spread gloom.”

Many people would rather die than think. In fact they do.

Bertrand Russell

Sixty minutes of thinking of any kind is bound to lead to confusion and unhappiness.

James Thurber

A conclusion is the place where you got tired thinking.

Martin H. Fischer

The way you think affects what you think about and what kinds of thoughts you get.

And the more kinds of thoughts you get, the more grist you’ll have for your idea mill.

Here are some different ways of thinking:

You and I were brought up to think with words. And when we form a thought today—any thought—it’s probably in the form of a statement. “Haste makes waste.” “The world is all screwed up.” “Nothing builds confidence like success.”

But many of the most creative minds in history thought with pictures instead of words.

Albert Einstein said that he rarely thought in words. Notions came to him in images that only later he tried to express in words or formulas.

William Harvey was watching the exposed heart of a living fish when he suddenly “saw” it as a pump.


10 Learn How to Combine


He can beat your’n with his’n and he can beat his’n with your’n.

Football coach Bum Phillips on
the ability of coach Don Shula

Asthma doesn’t seem to bother me any more unless I’m around cigars or dogs. The thing that would bother me most would be a dog smoking a cigar.

Steve Allen

Dr. Livingston I Presume (full name of Dr. Presume).


To be is to do.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

To do is to be.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Do be do be do.

Frank Sinatra

If “a new idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements,” it stands to reason that the person who knows how to combine old elements is more likely to come up with a new idea than a person who doesn’t know how to combine old elements.

Here are some suggestions that will help you combine:

An analogue is a comparison between two things that are similar in one or more respects, and is used to help make one of those things clearer or easier to understand.

Is your problem similar to other problems? What’s it dissimilar to?

If the greatest benefit of your product or service is speed, what’s the fastest thing in the world? Can you compare your benefit to that thing? What’s the slowest thing in the world? Can you compare it to that?


11 Define the Problem


No problem is so big or so complicated that it can’t be run away from.

Charles Schultz

It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.

James Thurber

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.


There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.

Gore Vidal

Since all problems have solutions, it’s critical that you define your problem correctly.

If you don’t you might solve the wrong problem.

In advertising—the field that I’m familiar with— the statement of the problem is often called a creative work plan or a creative strategy or a mission statement or some such thing. It demands answers to questions like, “What are we trying to say and why are we trying to say it?” “Who are we trying to say it to and why?” “What can we say that our competition can’t?” “What’s our product’s or service’s reason for being?”

These plans are essential, for as Norm Brown, the head of an advertising agency, once said: “If you don’t know where you’re going, every road leads there.”


12 Gather the Information


Aristotle was famous for knowing everything. He taught that the brain exists merely to cool the blood and is not involved in the process of thinking. This is true only of certain persons.

Will Cuppy

If there is another way to skin a cat, I don’t want to know about it.

Steve Kravitz

We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.

Thomas Edison

Let me tell you a story:

It was my first year in advertising. Our agency just got a new account—a meat packer. The owner wanted us to advertise his bacon. I remember my first copy chief, Bud Boyd, saying that he wanted to ask him “a few questions” before we started to work.

“What is bacon, exactly?”

“What kind of hogs?”

“Do some hogs produce better bacon than other hogs?”


“What kind of hogs does your competition use?”

“What are the hogs fed?”

“Why are they fed corn and whey and peanuts and slop?”

“Where do the corn and whey and peanuts and slop come from?”

“What kind of corn?”

“What kind of whey?”

“What kind of peanuts?”

“What kind of slop?”

“How much of each are they fed?”


13 Search for the Idea


If there is no wind, row.

Latin proverb

The biggest sin is sitting on your ass.

Florynce Kennedy

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

Gene Fowler

Cliff Einstein, the head of an advertising agency, says: “The best way to get an idea is to get an idea.”

He means that once you have an idea, the pressure is off to have an idea.

He also means that ideas have a way of snowballing, that the best way to get the whole process going is to prime it with an idea, any idea. It doesn’t matter if the idea makes sense or solves the problem or is even germane, just as long as it’s something new and different.

I know this sounds crazy, but try it sometime. It really works. Say: “Why don’t we paint it green?” Or “What if . . .”

Hal Riney, another agency head, said: “Actually, I suppose the creative process is probably nothing more than trial and error, guided by facts, experience, and taste.”

Linus Pauling said: “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”


14 Forget about It


It is sometimes expedient to forget who we are.

Publilius Syrus

Eric: My wife’s got a terrible memory.

Ernie: Really?

Eric: Yes, she never forgets a thing.

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

There are three things I always forget. Names, faces—the third I can’t remember.

Italo Svevo

This is something you do only after you follow the advice in the previous chapter.

It is also something that I didn’t get the chance to do often enough in advertising. Usually there wasn’t time to forget about problems. You had to get ideas now. Not tomorrow. Now.

It’s the same in journalism. Just listen to Andy Rooney: “The best creative ideas are the result of the same slow, selective, cognitive process that produces the sum of a column of figures. Anyone who waits for an idea to strike him has a long wait coming. If I have a deadline for a column or a television script, I sit down at the typewriter and damn well decide to have an idea. There’s nothing magical about the process.”

But I think Mr. Rooney is making a law out of a necessity.


15 Put the Idea into Action


Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Will Rogers

A vice president in an advertising agency is a “molehill man.” A molehill man is a pseudobusy executive who comes to work at 9 a.m. and finds a molehill on his desk. He has until 5 p.m. to make this molehill into a mountain. An accomplished molehill man will have his mountain finished even before lunch.

Fred Allen

When I was kidnapped, my parents snapped into action. They rented out my room.

Woody Allen

As we discussed in chapter 7, you must screw up your courage and tell somebody about your idea.

And if it meets with yawns or jeers, you must press on.

But what happens when it’s met with applause?

George Ade was a prolific writer in the early part of the 1900s. I once read an interview of his mother by a man who was not an admirer of her son’s work, and he was indelicate enough to ask her about George’s alleged capricious style and wobbly structure and shallow characterizations.

Finally Mrs. Ade had enough. “Oh, I know that many people can write better than George does,” she said. “But George does.”



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