The Art of Fermenting Great Ideas
And pickling jalapeños
Of the useless rain dances in corporate America, “brainstorming sessions” are among the worst. They could only have been dreamed up by a consultant who never stumbled upon a good idea in their life.
If they had, they would know you cannot sit down and decide to have a great idea. The great ideas hit you when you’re in the shower, tossing and turning in bed, or riding a bike with Dr. Hofmann.
And while great ideas seem to appear randomly, there is a science to summoning them out of the ether.
Here it is.
Before we get too far into idea generation, I need to teach you how to ferment jalapeños. Most people approach idea generation like baking or cooking, a precise practice that you can squeeze into a 50-minute meeting block or a daily regiment of “write down 10 ideas.” But brines don’t care about your 50-minute meeting block. They bubble when they’re ready.
So first, you need jalapeños. Ideally, the highest quality ones you can find. If you have to buy them from a grocery store, fine. Better would be from the local farmer’s market, so you know they were picked fresh. The best would be if you could grow them yourself. The ingredients you use for your ferment are extremely important.
Then, you need a good fermenting environment for them to live in. Chop them into slices, put them in a glass mason jar, cover them in water that’s 5% salt by weight, and then put a burping lid on top and keep them out of direct sunlight. Plastic or tupperware is much less ideal. Too little or too much salt and the bacteria won’t flourish, and if you use the wrong kind of lid, you might get mold or an explosion.
Finally, you need patience. You will get some action in the jar after a few days, but it won’t be ready yet. After a week, it will be delicious. It’s all a matter of taste from there. But if you try to rush it and eat them after a day, you’ll be disappointed. And if you set a timer for exactly 168 hours, you probably won’t get the best flavor either. It requires time and patience.
These are the three necessary criteria for a great ferment: great ingredients, the proper environment, and patience. Without them, you will fail to create something funky and wonderful. With them, your creativity is the only constraint.
What makes fermentation so magical is that the most important ingredient is the one you can’t control: the bacteria. You don’t add a bunch of bacteria to the pickle jar. They multiply from what’s already in the ingredients you chose. Your job is not to make them or add them or send them strongly worded emails until they do your bidding. Your job is to create the ideal environment for them to reproduce and let the magic happen.
Ideas and bacteria have a lot in common. You can’t control them. You can’t create them out of thin air. Some are good, and some are bad. But you can design the best possible environment for the good ones to thrive and multiply, and that’s how we want to approach idea generation. We want to approach it like a great fermentation.
So let’s start with ingredients. How do we cultivate the right ingredients for great idea fermenting?
There are two levels of thinking going on in our heads at any time. There’s the more active and conscious part of your brain that’s reading this article and which you think of as doing the “thinking.” Then a subconscious, processing part of your brain that occasionally figures something out and schwoop sends it up into your conscious mind via the mail tube from downstairs.
But the mailroom processing part of your brain can only work with whatever you feed it. And just like you shouldn’t expect the best ferment to come from the moldy garbage bin jalapeños behind 7-Eleven, you shouldn’t expect your mailroom to shock and awe you with brilliant ideas when you’re giving it junk.
The annoying thing about your brain fermentations vs. your counter fermentations is that your brain is always fermenting something. It thinks all information is created equal, so if you’re paying attention to something, then your mailroom should try to do something with it.
Whatever you pay attention to is being fermented by your brain. It doesn’t understand that refining your lysergic acid derivatives is more important than whether or not Shanae will find someone new before the next rose ceremony. If you pay attention to it, it’s going in the fermentation jar.
Every tweet you read, every newspaper you glance at, every show you watch, every email you skim, it’s all feeding your subconscious things to process. And whatever it’s fed, it will ferment into ideas and reactions. So if you want to come up with better ideas, you must get extremely strict about what you let in the door.
If you want all of the ideas that pop into your brain to be clever responses to that person who was WRONG on Twitter today, then, by all means, scroll Twitter all day. If you want all your mental RAM to go towards fearing for your life over this year’s new armageddon myth, go for it. But if you want to come up with useful brain farts that move your life forward, you will have to stop feeding your mailroom dog shit. Garbage in, garbage out.
This is why certain prescriptions, like avoiding the news, avoiding social media, or reading older books, are so helpful. If you watch the news and social media all day, you can only generate ideas related to whatever tedium made it into the 24-hour outrage cycle. If you only read the popular new books everyone else is reading, you will come up with the same thoughts as everyone else. Same if you listen to all the same podcasts. It makes you a boring NPC. You’re like a mental assembly line worker pushing out all-black Model Ts next to everyone else. Mix it up a little.
If you want great ideas, you must remove all the bad ingredients. Outrage, information you don’t care about or can’t act on, trivia, fluff. Obviously, you should keep some fun in your life. I love seeing the creative factory designs in the Satisfactory subreddit. But you need to be extremely discerning about it because the more info you let in, the less space your mailroom has to do the work you want.
Removal is only the first step, though. You must replace it with the fresh juicy jalapeños you want your brain to be fermenting.
You’re probably assuming I’m going to say “read great books” or “read old stuff” here, but no, that’s not the answer. That helps shift your thinking in a more interesting direction. But it doesn’t necessarily help generate great ideas.
The most important food to constantly feed your brain is the problems you want it to be solving. These problems do not need to be grand like “solving world hunger.” Maybe one of your problems right now is what to get people for Christmas. You have to define clearly what those problems are and then constantly remind your brain to think about them. You need to be sending all-caps memos down to the mailroom fifty times a day saying COME UP WITH GIFT IDEAS!!! Otherwise, the mailroom is thinking about whether you’d rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck.
You can figure out the strategy that makes the most sense for you, but here’s mine.
This is the only home screen on my phone. I tag certain Apple Notes with #focus, and then they end up in this smart folder on my home screen. They’re often articles I’m working on or related to my book work, but there are other things, like home improvement projects or other big decisions. Then below that is a random quotation I have saved from books and articles I’ve read.
With this taking up my entire home screen, every time I pick up my phone, I’m getting reminded of what I should be thinking about and getting a little inspiration from things I’ve already read. I don’t have Twitter on my phone and don’t really use any other social media, so it turns the phone into an idea-generation device instead of a distraction device.
But you could do this in plenty of other ways. A sticky tab on your computer, a screenshot on your phone lock screen, a forehead tattoo, the method doesn’t matter. What matters is cutting out all the noise and replacing it with the high-quality ingredients you want your brain working on.
Obviously, ingredients are only one part, though. They also need the right environment to ferment in.
If you fail to create a proper fermenting environment, it won’t matter how tasty your ingredients are. They will mold, or never ferment, develop a weird flavor, turn a funky color, or you’ll just open them up after a week or two and take a big deep sniff and go, “hmmm… I don’t think that’s right.”
Our ideas, too, will disappoint us if we don’t give them the right environment to develop in. They’ll be shallow, derivative, dull, repetitive, or take too long to show up. Or they’ll just not show up at all. We must find the perfect glass jar and lid for them to appear in.
What is that perfect glass jar, though? Our ideas appear primarily in one situation: when little else is occupying our thoughts. It’s as if it is a defense mechanism of our brain responding to the lack of stimulus. If you’re not engaged in hunting, gathering, building, mating, or socializing, then something must be wrong, and you need to fix it. So it starts shooting up ideas from the mailroom to get you back into one of those modes that will save you from dying alone with no progeny.
Good ideas require boredom. If you constantly ingest new information, the existing information can never be digested. It’s as if you’re looking at your fermenting jar on the counter every hour and wondering why nothing has happened, so you open it and stuff in another cucumber.
Think of your time as explicitly allocated to loading in information or towards seeing what your brain shoots out. Input time, output time.
Input time is reading books, scrolling social media, watching the news, listening to podcasts, talking to friends and colleagues, or anything else that adds new stuff for your subconscious to process.
Output time is creating the space and boredom for those inputs to ferment into something interesting. Staring at a blank page of your journal, opening a document to start writing, going for a (no headphones) walk with a notebook, working out without music, or sitting in the sauna. However you create bored, quite space for your brain to finally get some processing room to spit ideas out; you must create that space if you want the ideas to form.
The ways we fail at this are obvious. We never give ourselves output time because we’re terrified of silence and boredom. We need a podcast while working out. We need music while working. We keep social media up in another tab. We have notifications on our phones. We let ourselves be interrupted.
If your first response to boredom is to seek out another input to sate the longing for stimulation, then your brain never has to make shit up to entertain you. The idea muscles will atrophy and never produce anything of worth. But if you can respond to boredom by leaning into it, keeping the blank page open, and seeing what pops out, the muscle gets stronger over time.
That is the magic of boredom. It’s how you seal the jar on your jalapeños and say, “okay, bacteria, do your work.” More information is rarely your friend. It’s often a form of distraction and procrastination.
We know the first two important aspects now: great ingredients and the proper environment. Let’s talk about the final one: time.
Oh wow, great things take time. Very helpful and creative, Nat. I know, I know, but there is a worthwhile point here.
Ideas sometimes seem to need days or weeks or months to get to a point where they feel fully formed. If you try to force a solution to a problem into a preset window of time, you will almost certainly reach a suboptimal solution.
I’ll often have ideas sitting in my focus folder for weeks or months and keep tossing thoughts into them, and then one day, it will suddenly feel very clear how it all fits together.
We all want our problems to be solved quickly, and we want to neatly move through a checklist of tasks to retain the illusion of control over our lives, but great ideas don’t seem to work like that. Sometimes you need to be exceedingly patient with them.
You can’t always have all the time in the world, but when you have the space to noodle on something, take it. I’ll narrow down what I’m going to write about in this newsletter by Monday or Tuesday of the week before, then spend the rest of the week seeing what ideas pop up about the various topic ideas. By Monday, I’ll typically have the skeleton of a post fully flushed out in one of them. If I waited until Monday to start jotting ideas down, it would be much harder, and the post would certainly be much worse.
So give the great ideas time to pop up. Even if you know you have weeks or months to figure something out, start priming your brain with those questions now so it has time to process them.
I hope you liked learning about jalapeños and ideas. Here’s the Recipe Card:
Find the best ingredients possible to ferment into great ideas, and aggressively prune everything you don’t want your brain to process.
Give your brain the boredom and output time it needs to figure out what to do with that information. Don’t keep opening the jar and packing more into it.
Finally, be patient with the process. The more you can reduce the amount of information you’re taking in, and the more boredom you can give your brain to work, the better your results will be.
I hope your jalapeños are delicious.
If you enjoyed this post, join 36,000 other weekly readers to see what tasty jalapeños my brain will spit out next week.