My college friend, professional paint ball player (you read correctly) Alexander Schneider, once described to me the way his mind works:
“I’m a king; I sit on my throne surrounded by millions of my royal subjects, each holding a sign. One by one, my subjects approach the throne and present to me their sign — each of which contains an idea, a thought, or an action. I review each sign, then dismiss or acknowledge the sign. This whole process never stops and the presentations happen in milliseconds.”
I was stunned. I had never encountered someone who so eloquently (and hilariously) explained the process of thought and decision so well.
In one sense, we are the king (or queen) of our mind; we make the decisions and have to deal with the consequences. These decisions may not lead to an extra close hair cut like Louis XVI, but not listening to the right “royal subjects” might results in headaches, heartaches, or belly aches.
I differ from Alex’s point of view — but only slightly. While I do agree with the metaphor of a constant stream of sign-bearers bombarding you with their own agenda, I find myself not being able to make such snap decisions on many thoughts or ideas. For a while, I would make snap decisions and I’d usually regret them. One day I decided to take on a different strategy: I’m going to take my ideas out on a date.
Call Me Maybe
To expand on Alex's metaphor, rather than immediately dismiss the 'subjects,' I put them into a special "Maybe Later" queue. Using a process called "Getting Things Done" — which was made popular by David Allen's book of the same name — I add these ideas to a massive "To-Do" list in my organizational program of choice, Things by Cultured Code. The combination of my shorthand and the speed in which I copy these down must make reading it a hilarious nightmare for others. I imagine it's a lot like Charlie Kelly's Dream Book from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. When enough ideas have collected, I bust out my sketchbook and start doodling. The goal is to give each idea roughly 5–10 minutes of my time and see if the idea is worth exploring on a deeper level.
This is the part of the process where you want to go "speed dating." For those who are unaware, speed dating is a social function where single people gather together and pair up for 5–10 minutes. Since the interactions are timed, it discourages small talk and encourages asking questions that will help you determine the value in your date.
In speed dating, you wouldn't ask your potential mate questions like: "What color are the majority of your clothes?", "What's your ten-year plan for employment and living arrangements?", or "Does your family have any genetic diseases I should know about?" Similarly, it would be weird to ask your potential project questions about color and font treatments, profit margins, and any potential coding bugs — at this stage, at least.
Each idea is going to yield a different level of "getting to know you." Websites may call for quick wire frames or a basic site map, posters: some layout sketches or a mind map, logos: line marks, mind maps, and shapes. The point is, do just enough to gauge your major interests and see if the idea meets them. You may decide that a project may interest you later, but doesn't meet your needs right now — set these aside and reintroduce them in the next pool. I'm sure that many speed dating events have their own regulars.
Is This Love?
Now that phase one is over, you should have a sketchbook full of doodles (or a pocket full of phone numbers). The question now is which ideas should you court and which ideas should you give the old "Dear John" letter. While you should still be casual, it's time to start thinking more seriously about a long-term commitment. Some aspects or your potential project may be exciting, but now it's time to start considering the whole picture. The sultry redhead you met in speed dating may have really got your motor running, but she spent all 10 minutes talking about her cat, Mittens. Similarly, a logo that has a super interesting mark may really get you excited, but if there's no client or no product, the project is most likely not going to be successful.
Now that you've picked out your ideas, it's time for a "first date." Since you're a classy person, you don't go on more than one date with one person a day, right? Right — the same rule applies to dating your ideas. Jamming in two "dates" into one day may not allow you to fully experience the idea for what it is — really give your ideas room to breathe and be themselves. It's also important to have fun with it; instead of your usual working space, why not go out to a coffee shop, restaurant, or the park? I've found that going to my favorite coffee shop makes the session feel less like "work" and more like a fun treat — it mimics the feeling of a real date to me.
Start asking the questions and exploring the topics that weren't appropriate during the "speed dating" session. Now is the time to start worrying about things like color treatments, profit margins, and any potential long-term pitfalls. In a real life situation, you may find out through that your date hopes to move to Saskatchewan in the next five years. If you don't like the cold (or Tim Horton's), then it's probably not going to work out. Better to find out now than when you're heavily invested and it's harder to separate.
You'll know when it feels right and when it's time to say "goodbye.” Remember: the goals of dating (both ideas and people) are to figure out if your date's goals are similar to yours and to have fun.
By the way: It's perfectly normal to have a feeling similar to "first date jitters." May I suggest another article of mine, Blank Paper Syndrome, to help you out?
At this point, you've gone on several dates with all your potential ideas. You should start to notice that you're enjoying your time with one more than the others. It will become easier and easier to work on your idea — and to not work on the others. In real dating scenarios, this would be the point where you start smiling just by thinking about the other person. The sound of your phone alerting you of a text message makes your heart flutter because it might be them.
Eventually, it'll be time to make a commitment to one project. When the moment hits you, you'll know: you won't be able to stop thinking about it, every minute detail runs through your mind and you cannot wait to work on it. Congratulations; you have found a project you really care about. The length and depth of your relationship is entirely up to you, as no two relationships are similar. You may even be able to convince your project to let you see other ideas on the side.
There will undoubtedly be rough times ahead — you may even decide the project isn't right for you. Let's face it, couples break up all the time and the creator-idea relationship is no different. In both cases, it's important to remember that you can always repeat this process until you find a match that truly fits with your ideals, wants, and needs.
Now grab your sketchbook, put on your fancy clothes, pour a drink, and get to dating!
Nick Snyder is a designer, speaker, and writer currently based in Boston, MA. He believes in creating last experiences through the marriage of great design and the latest technology. Nick graduated from The University of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He has previously worked for Environmental Tectonics Corporation, Cheng & Tsui, and currently is a full-time front-end designer/developer at Mad*Pow. Nick is a proud urban cyclist, runner, and newly-minted minimalist. When he's not making a dent in the web, he enjoys laying in hammocks, making music, and going on ridiculous adventures.