When I was little, I went through a phase in which I had but one purpose: become an Inventor1. To me, Inventor was a perfectly clear career path, right up there with Train Conductor and Cooker-Man2. Inventors were uniquely qualified to create something from nothing, responsible for dreaming up new and fantastic things. In the way that all kids do, I was constantly inventing — with forts made of the old bricks in my backyard, games generated from the patterns of cracks in the street. Anything and everything around me was used in an ever-evolving series of games, stories, and pastimes. It’s possible that at that time, I had a clearer picture of who I would become as a young man than I did at any other point in my life. It would take another 10 years for me to find that clarity again, during my Sophomore year of college. But this isn’t that story. This is the story of a list. This is the story of a lifestyle. This is the story of The World’s Greatest Google Doc.
My senior year at Carnegie Mellon, I was introduced to a brainstorming technique I’ll call Shotgun Brainstorming. The premise of the Shotgun method is simple: sit down and think of as many ideas as you can, without any evaluation of them. College is incredibly good at teaching you critical thinking: looking at ideas to find their limits and find connections, with an emphasis on reason and logic and value. But Shotgun Brainstorming isn’t about these things — it’s about production. By committing all of the ideas to paper, regardless of quality, you are free to let your mind wander beyond the confines of the prompt, beyond the confines of what you know to be true and what you can implement. In ideation free of critique and free of a value system, you can float from place to place, genre to genre, naturally and comfortably. In short, it helps you create like a child.
For one class, we had to come up with 50 ideas for games in two days. So I made a Google Doc and began listing game concepts. They were, of course, mostly terrible. Eventually, I just titled the whole list “Shit Ideas”. Over the course of the two days, every game concept I could think of went into the list. It seems quite difficult, but you get into a kind of “creative groove”. Conversations you have will reflexively inspire ideas, or iterations of previous concepts. When the two days were up, I just kept going. I decided to include non-game ideas, beginning with art projects, but eventually expanding to pretty much everything that could be made or produced.
Recipes, concepts for short stories, software services – the list slowly grew. I would often pause in the middle of conversations I was having as comments sparked new additions. This naturally led to many discussions over the Shit Ideas Doc with those around me. After a time, some of my close friends began keeping idea documents of their own. Our lists grew and grew, and occasionally we’d have conversations where we’d talk through the finer points of some of our concepts.
A year later, I received an interesting email from one of those friends, Jason Paul. He proposed that we put together some kind of group, a forum to discuss all of our ideas. With many of us recently graduated (excluding myself), it was a way to flex our creative muscles. We put out some feelers and began what is now known as the Shit Ideas Greenhouse3. Every two weeks, we have a group video chat in which we discuss anything from ways to improve dating apps to flavor combinations of the Dorita (a frozen margarita with a rim of crushed Doritos). Every member of the group keeps their own Shit Ideas Doc, and each session we create new entries in a shared document (lovingly entitled “Communal Shit Ideas”). In the words of Jason, “…it’s communal because of contribution. Shared ideas, not a list of separate ideas from different people.” The creation of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse is one of the best things to come out of the Shit Ideas process.
The title “Shit Ideas” shouldn’t be taken as an implication that all of the ideas on the we discuss are bad. It refers more to the fact that we don’t exclude ideas based on their shittiness. We often spend large chunks of our time discussing one or two really viable ideas, pulling them out of the Shotgun mentality and into values-world, where we look at their limits and their merits. Many members of the Greenhouse are employed in fields that don’t always give them a creative outlet, and it provides some peer incentive to keep ourselves in the creative habit.
It helps, too, that we are ideating for the sake of ideation. So many brainstorming exercises are focused on creating ideas for a product or business, or to address some specific issue. But ideas have a value in and of themselves, and often in our haste to find the “right idea” that solves our problems, we miss some terribly great ideas along the way. So the Shit Ideas Doc and the Shit Ideas Greenhouse provide a way to stop and smell the roses, so speak, on our creative efforts. We are designers, engineers, artists. But above all, we are Inventors — creating something out of nothing, uniquely qualified to conceive the impractical creations of the Shit Ideas Greenhouse.