If you want ideas, you have to start by breaking existing ideas down into smaller ones. Only then can you see how to build your own.

It’s a little mantra you can say: Ideas are made of other ideas.

No genius invented their parents. No legend created the idea of art or language. Mozart didn’t invent the piano and Picasso didn’t invent paint. We have always borrowed, reused, stolen and stood on the shoulders of ideas that came before us and we always will.

It’s impossible to find any idea that can’t be broken down into smaller ideas. Pick a song, an invention, a philosophy… they are all recombinations of other ideas. Sometimes the grandest ideas, once you ditch the romance, are the easiest to dissect.  Until you can see the fact that all ideas are made of other ideas as an immutable law, you’re unlikely to create, since you see ideas in the world as fixed when in truth they are always in motion.

I wrote about this at length in The Myths of Innovation, and it’s also in my Creative Thinking Hacks essay:

[use] the following simple definition: an idea is a combination of other ideas. Say it five times out loud. Say it to your cat. Yell it out you car window at strangers waiting for the bus. Every amazing creative thing you’ve ever seen, or idea you’ve ever heard can be broken down into smaller ideas that existed before.

An automobile? An engine + wheels. A telephone? Electricity and sound. Reese’s peanut butter cups? Peanut butter and chocolate. All great creative ideas, inventions, and theories are comprised of other ideas.

Why should you care? Here’s why: if you want to be a creator instead of a mere consumer you must see ideas currently in the world as fuel for your mind. You must stop seeing them as objects or functional things: they are combinations of ingredients waiting for reuse.

Don’t believe me? Look at this (mildly NSFW, hat tip @ario)

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15 Responses to “All ideas are made of other ideas”

  1. zproxy |

    For some reason the scene from The Matrix appeared to me while reading this where Neo stands in the hallway and sees the agents in his green 0 and 1 vision. He truly understands the sub ideas :) Other thought is that an idea is essentially a mindmap.

    Reply
  2. Dan Roberts |

    Scott -

    A great quote comes to mind: “Out in the sun, some painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second…You see the sequence.” – Paul Gauguin

    Per your twitter question (are there any exceptions?), I don’t think so unless you were to use a technicality. The case could be made that some of the things we take from nature cannot be broken down into smaller ideas. However, that would depend on your definition of an idea (is something that naturally comes into existence an idea?) and your view on how the world came to be.

    The bottom line is that every idea is made up of smaller ideas and every “original” idea took its inspiration from nature.

    Reply
  3. Justin |

    If you looked at ideas in the same way that you look at an object you could postulate that you can continue to break the object down until you reach the core parts. The core parts then become the building blocks on which all other objects are built…. string theory for instance.

    But /can/ you treat an idea in the same way as an object? I don’t think so.

    Ideas are based on other ideas are based on other ideas…… They become an abstract thought in a myriad of minds where each person has their own understanding of how a single idea is broken down into other ideas.

    Has anyone tried to take a single idea and map it back as far as it can go? It would be great to see it how it evolves and how the connections are drawn *heads off with pencil and paper*

    Reply
  4. Mauricio |

    But, sometimes, someone comes with a really original idea. Einstein’s theory of relativity is one of the very few examples of this.

    Reply
  5. Fernando Fuster-Fabra Fdz. |

    Have we developed our mind capacity to the point that there aren’t any original ideas left? The fact that most will use information from other original ideas doesn’t mean we can’t produce some new ideas or reconstrue concepts that are improvable. Mere copying can never be considered innovation. Our minds still have a lot to spit out in favour of originality and innovation.

    Reply
  6. Antonio de los Campos |

    As well in Project management we talk about Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) in innovation we sholud talk about Ideas Breakdown Structure (IBS)

    Reply
  7. Mike G |

    That really sounds simple, but in practice it’s incredibly difficult to come up with great ideas. The reason why is because the ideas that are being joined usually have no obvious relationship with one another and are brought together in a surprising manner. The example of the engine and the wheel is deceptive in that regard, because what engine was ever created for any other purpose but to drive a wheel? One invention that I find remarkable is the graphical user interface (GUI). It combines the ideas of data entry and pointing. The idea of pointing is so rudimentary to our means of expression that we do it by habit or instinct without ever really thinking about it. In there lies the genious. Something that is so basic that we hardly even notice it was combined with computer science to revolutionize the industry. In the end finding two ideas that can be brought together in such a surprising manner and be useful at the same time is like finding a needle in a haystack. Long ago I came to the conclusion that doing so by sorting through all the possible permutations is next to impossible. However the human mind somehow is able to do so with amazing efficiency.

    Reply
  8. spz |

    When every Idea is a composite of existing ideas, will there be a final idea, that is, in the end, a composition of all other ideas?

    I would like to know which one that might be..

    Reply
  9. charlie |

    This article is very interesting. In my opinion it has to do with giving up the idea of the artistic creation as something “magical”, as “a grace” fallen from the hands of God. Of course at the end it is, because, like ideas, unexpected combinations occur (between a reader’s mind and what the author wrote, between a drama text and the actor at a precise moment on stage etc…) but analyzing our ideas, the creative process is a way to make it better and not, like the european romantics used to say: the death of creation. You can actually choose to be a better artist.

    Reply
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Samuel Driessen, Zeggio Software Inc.. Zeggio Software Inc. said: A useful reminder. All ideas are made of other ideas. http://bit.ly/gGijVP [...]

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  3. [...] Scott Berkun stated that every idea comes from another idea. [use] the following simple definition: an idea is a combination of other ideas. Say it five times out loud. Say it to your cat. Yell it out you car window at strangers waiting for the bus. Every amazing creative thing you’ve ever seen, or idea you’ve ever heard can be broken down into smaller ideas that existed before. An automobile? An engine + wheels. A telephone? Electricity and sound. Reese’s peanut butter cups? Peanut butter and chocolate. All great creative ideas, inventions, and theories are comprised of other ideas. Why should you care? Here’s why: if you want to be a creator instead of a mere consumer you must see ideas currently in the world as fuel for your mind. You must stop seeing them as objects or functional things: they are combinations of ingredients waiting for reuse. Reference [...]

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