Should Fish Have Twitter Accounts: Thinking about Questions and Ideas

Answering specific questions is so limiting that when someone asks me to take part in answering a question they ask, I refuse. Usually, this would make a person anti-social, and make them lose all their friends. However, I’ve devised a system that works really well to avoid answering specific questions that don’t have a lot of practicality for anything other than their own domain.

Instead of answering a specific question, I like to try to abstract away the specificity and go for the root of the question. That way, if I really do need to answer the specific question because of the context, I can, but I’ll have the more general answer in my head to use later on.

A friend of mine recently asked me “If you weren’t going to work for the company you’re going to work at now, where would you go work?” To abstract away the specificity of this question, I thought about why I work. Why I choose companies, why I choose specific opportunities. This lead me to learn more about myself and allowed me to use those principles that I learned from self-reflection to answer that question. Instead of just answering that question, though, I was internally answering more general questions about myself, who I am, and why I do what I do. I was also able to answer a follow-up question about investing money vs investing time without much thought. It’s because I’d already answered the more general question from earlier.

This idea of abstracting away specificity has also helped me be more creative. When at a hackerspace in Shanghai, I met a person working on a self-moving plant pot that moves where there is more sunlight, and waters itself. When trying to help him brainstorm new ideas, I chose to think of otherwise immobile living organism and how to make them mobile and more human-like. Things I came up with were having your fish have a Twitter account, having a sensor next to a turtle’s stomach and having a scream play incredibly loudly from a speaker next to its mouth when the turtle was hungry, IoT hamster wheel and an online hamsters olympics, something that measures how happy/sad your dog is and play music according to its mood, etc.

Speaking of ideas, I’ve changed my view on how I think about ideas. I now default to the craziest, most out there idea when proposing anything. For example, another time I was in Shanghai I was freezing. It was so cold. My god. I told some people at the hackerspace that I want to make a warm, non-toxic liquid that could warm your blood and make you feel warmer. When I pitched the same idea in San Francisco, a friend of mine said “why not just stop the neurotransmitter that tells you how cold you are, from working.” I thought that was genius. Then I learned from another friend that doing something like that could cause the body to develop a tolerance to that drug which could then cause withdrawl symptoms of being incredibly cold all the time. That idea is definitely off the table.

Two rules of thumb for me:

  • Generalize a question to find very interesting unique answers
  • Think of the craziest most far out ideas even if you have no idea that they’ll work

The second point reminds me a bit of the idea of the Beginner’s Mind. Naivety is the key to all true innovation, in my opinion. Having that beginner’s mind makes you think in ways that nobody in the field/industry ever thought which is a huge advantage in coming up with something others have disregarded as impractical or otherwise irrelevant. I’m going to write a blog post about this sometime coming up because it’s something I deeply believe in.

I would love to talk more about ideas. I know the hit thing these days is “ideas are worthless, execution is what matters” but I’m a super curious person that likes prototyping on stuff. So if you want to brainstorm, I am always, always down. Hopefully we can use these techniques for both of us to have an interesting conversation.