The Ultimate Guide for Becoming an Idea Machine

The way to have good ideas is to get close to killing yourself. It’s  like weightlifting. When you lift slightly more than you can handle, you  get stronger.

In life, when the gun is to your head, you either figure it out, or you die.

When you cut yourself open, you bleed ideas. If you’re broke and close to death, you have to start coming up with ideas.

If you destroy your life, you need to come up with ideas to rebuild it.

The only time I’ve been FORCED to have good ideas is when I was up  against the wall. My life insurance policy was like a gun to my head:  “Come up with good ideas… OR ELSE your kids get your life insurance!”

At an airport when I realized a business I had been working on for four years was worthless.

Or when I was sitting in the dark at three in the morning in the living  room of the house I was going bankrupt and losing my home, my brain  figuring out how to die without anyone knowing it was planned.

Or when I was getting a divorce and I was lonely and afraid I wouldn’t  make any money again or I wouldn’t meet anyone again. Or my kids would  hate me. Or my friends would be disgusted by me.

The problem is  this: you’re NOT in a state of panic most of the time. States of panic  are special and have to be revered. Think about the times in your life  that you remember – it’s exactly those moments when you hit bottom and  were forced to come up with ideas, to get stronger, to connect with some  inner force inside you with the outer force.

This is why it’s important NOW to strengthen that connection to that idea force inside of you. This post is about HOW.

Nothing you ever thought of before amounted to anything – that’s why  you are exactly where you are at that moment of hitting bottom. Because  all of your billions of thoughts have led you to right there. You can’t  trust the old style of thinking anymore. They came, they saw, they lost.

You have to come up with a new way of thinking. A new way of having ideas. A new ways of interacting with the outside universe.

You’re in crisis. Time to change. Time to become an IDEA MACHINE.

People know what “runner’s high” is. It’s when you are running for a  long time, at the point of exhaustion, and then something kicks in and  gives you a “second wind”.

400,000 years ago people didn’t jog for exercise. They didn’t even have jogging shorts. Or sneakers.

400,000 years ago people need to eat and live. And either you’re  running to catch a prey, or you are running from a lion. You’re the  prey! And you need that second wind in both cases or you DIE.

The same thing happens in the brain. When you are about to die, a second  wind kicks in. Ideas, experiences, opportunity, and probably hidden  forces and neurochemicals we don’t understand.

But you can’t get runner’s high unless you’re ALREADY in good shape. Unless you are already able to run long distances.

This is why it’s important to exercise the idea muscle right now. If  your idea muscle atrophies, then even at your lowest point you won’t  have any ideas.

How long does it take this muscle to atrophy?  The same as any other muscle in your body: just two weeks without having  any ideas. Atrophied. Altucher Confidential:... James Altucher Best Price: $12.94 Buy New $12.95 (as of 08:20 EST - Details)

If you lie down in a bed for two weeks and don’t move your legs you will need physical therapy to walk again.

Many people need idea therapy. Not so that they can come up with great  ideas right this second (although maybe you will) but so that people can  come up with ideas when they need them: when their car is stuck, when  their house blows up, when they are fired from their job, when their  spouse betrays them, when they go bankrupt or lose a big customer, or  lose a client, or go out of business, or get sick.

IDEAS ARE  THE CURRENCY OF LIFE. Not money. Money gets depleted until you go broke.  But good ideas buy you good experiences, buy you better ideas, buy you  better experiences, buy you more time, save your life. Financial wealth  is a side effect of the “runner’s high” of your idea muscle.

Whoah! That was a big intro. Depending on where I post this, some people  will write “tl;dr” which I had to look up and it means “too long,  didn’t read.” I encourage those people to stop reading here and save  yourself the trouble. It’s ok. I’m not mad at you. I’ll write smaller  articles also. I’ll even draw cartoons.

I’ve often written  about the idea muscle as part of what I call my “daily practice”. Every  day I have to check the box on physical, emotional, mental, and  spiritual health.

And I get a lot of questions about it so I  will try and answer them here. If you have more questions, ask in the  comments and I will answer.

Sometimes people ask, “did you only start coming up with ideas because you already had it made?

ANSWER: I was on the floor crying because I was dead broke and dead lonely and had no prospects so that’s why I had to do it.

So now, 1000 words in (“tl;dr”) The Ultimate Cheat Sheet for Becoming an Idea Machine

The below is what I do and what works for me. If you have anything to  add, please add them in the comments, I need all the help I can get.


You will be like a superhero. It’s almost a guaranteed membership in the Justice League of America.

Every situation you are in, you will have a ton of ideas. Any question  you are asked, you will know the response. Every meeting you are at, you  will take the meeting so far out of the box you’ll be on another  planet, if you are stuck on a desert highway – you will figure the way  out, if you need to make money you’ll come up with 50 ideas to make  money, and so on.

After I started exercising the idea muscle,  it was like a magic power had unleashed inside of me. It’s ok if you  don’t believe me. Or maybe you think it’s bragging. There are many times  when I don’t have ideas. But that’s when I stop practicing what I am  about to advocate.

Try it for yourself. I’m not selling  anything here. I have no reason for you to try this. I just want to  share my exerience. It’s like part of your brain is opened up and a  constant flow of stuff, both good and bad, gets dropped in there.

From where? I don’t think about it and I don’t care. But I use it.

In early 2009 was one of those times when I desperately needed to do  this. I was fulltime either trying to find a girlfriend or I was trying  to start a business or both. I was also going broke in the stock market  and losing my home  (until I personally saved the entire stock market –  see my book).

Every night, I’d have waffles for dinner and a  bottle of wine and start writing ideas down. This is before I went paleo  (no waffles!) and stopped drinking alcohol (five years sober!) and I  was writing 10-20 of the most ludicrous ideas a day down.

And you know what ? It worked.


Take a waiter’s pad. Go to a local cafe. Maybe read an inspirational  book for ten to twenty minutes. Then start writing down ideas. What  ideas? Hold on a second. The key here is, write ten ideas.


A waiter’s pad fits in your pocket so you can easily pull it out to jot things down. 40 Alternatives to Col... Altucher, James Best Price: $2.49 Buy New $4.95 (as of 04:15 EDT - Details)

A waiter’s pad is too small to write a whole novel or even a paragraph.  In fact, it’s specifically made to make a list. And that’s all you  want, a list of ideas.

A waiter’s pad is a great conversation  starter if you are in a meeting. Someone at the meeting will eventually  say, “I’ll take fries with my burger” and everyone will laugh. You broke  the ice and you stand out.

A waiter’s pad is cheap. You can  get about 100 for $10. This shows you are frugal and don’t need those  fancy moleskin pads to have a good idea.

Oh, and I just found  out another reason for a waiter’s pad while I was writing this. Someone  with alcohol on his breath, a bottle in hand, looking like he could  crush me with one hand, just came up to me in the cafe I’m sitting at  and asked for money. I held up my waiter’s pad and said, “Can I take  your order?” and he said, “OH!” and he walked away.


If I say, “write down ten ideas for books you can write” I bet you can  easily write down four or five. I can write down four or five right now.  But at six it starts to get hard. “Hmmm,” you think, “what else can I  come up with?”

This is when the brain is sweating.

Note that when you exercise in the gym, your muscles don’t start to  build until you break a sweat. Your metabolism doesn’t improve when you  run until you sweat. Your body doesn’t break down the old and build the  new until it is sweating.

The poisons and toxins in your body don’t leave until you sweat.

The same thing happens with the idea muscle. Somewhere around idea  number six, your brain starts to sweat. This means it’s building up.  Break through this. Come up with ten ideas.


Here’s the magic trick: if you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20 ideas.

F) BUT IF I CAN’T COME UP WITH TEN, HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO COME UP WITH 20? I Was Blind But Now I ... Altucher, James Best Price: $3.07 Buy New $8.00 (as of 11:55 EST - Details)

For the obvious reason. You are putting too much pressure on yourself.  Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle. Perfectionism is your  brain trying to protect you from harm. From coming up with an idea that  is embarassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain.

We like the brain. But you have to shut the brain off to come up with ideas.

The way you shut the brain off is by forcing it to come up with bad ideas.

So let’s say you’ve written 5 ideas for books and they are all pretty  good. And now you are stuck. “How can I top this brilliant list of  five!?”

Well, let’s come up with some bad ideas. Here’s one:  “Dorothy and the Wizard of Wall Street”. Dorothy is in a hurricane in  Kansas and she lands right at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street in  NYC and she has to make her way all the way down Wall Street in order to  find “The Wizard of Wall Street” (Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman  Sachs) in order to get home to Kansas. Instead, he offers her a job to  be a high frequency trader instead.

What a bad idea! Ok, now go  onto the next 15 ideas. (and it anyone wants to buy the movie rights to  “The Wizard of Wall Street” please contact Claudia.)


You won’t. You don’t. You can’t. You shouldn’t.

Let’s say you come up with ten ideas a day. In a year you will have  come up with 3650 ideas (no breaks on weekends by the way if you want to  get good at this). Maybe more if you are trying to do 20 ideas a day.

It’s unlikely that you came up with 3,650 good ideas (after you become  an idea machine your ratio goes up but probably in the beginning your  ratio of bad ideas to good is around 1000:1).

Don’t put  pressure on yourself to come up with good ideas. The key right now is  just to have good ideas. When Tiger Woods is practicing he doesn’t get  disappointed himself if he doesn’t hit a hole in one every shot. You’re  just practicing here.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. But  practice makes permanent. So that later on when you do need good ideas  to save your life, you know you will be a fountain of them. The Power of No: Becau... Altucher, James Best Price: $1.93 Buy New $9.88 (as of 03:40 EST - Details)

When there’s a tidal wave of good ideas coming out of you, you only need a cup of water out of that to quench your thirst.


Here’s what I do often when I am writing down ideas that I think I might want to act on.

I divide my paper into two columns.

On one column is the list of ideas. On the other column is the list of  “FIRST STEPS”. Remember, only the first step. Because you have no idea  where that first step will take you.

Imagine you are driving  100 miles to your home late at night. You turn on your headlights so you  can see in front of you. All you can see is about 30 feet in front of  you but you know if you have the lights on the entire time, you’ll make  it home safely, 100 miles away.

Activating the idea machine is how you turn the lights on so you can get home. But you don’t need to do any more than that.

One of my favorite examples: Richard Branson didn’t like the service on  some airline he was flying. So he had an idea: I’m going to start a new  airline. How the heck can a magazine publisher start an airline from  scratch with no money?

His first step. He called Boeing to see if they had an airplane he could lease.

No idea is so big you can’t take the first step. If the first step  seems to hard, make it simpler. And don’t worry again if the idea is  bad. This is all practice.

For instance, let’s say one of my  ideas is: “I want to be a brain surgeon”. My first step: I would buy a  bunch of books on how to do brain surgery. I don’t have to plan my whole  way through medical school.

Wait!? Did I just say I would be a  brain surgeon without a medical degree? No. I simply had a bad idea and  the first step I would take if I was going to “execute” on that idea.  And,  yes, I’m absolutely confident I would be able to do successful  brain surgery before someone throws me in jail (hence, the bad idea  aspect of it). Trade Like a Hedge Fun... Altucher, James Best Price: $4.64 Buy New $19.75 (as of 12:05 EST - Details)

A real life example: In 2006 I had ten ideas for  websites I wanted to build. I knew how to program but didn’t want to.  So my first step was to find a site like Elance and then put the spec up  and find programmers in India who could make the websites for me. One  of them I paid $2000 to develop and sold for $10,000,000 9 months later.  (this is not bragging – I went dead broke about 2 years after that).

Nine of the ten ideas were BAD. But you only need one.


There’s no way to know in advance if a business idea is a good one. For  instance, Google started around 1996 but didn’t make a dime of money  until around 2001.

Here’s my favorite example. A company called  Odeo was a software company to help people set up podcasts. Since I do a  podcast now this seems like a great idea to me. So they raised a ton of  money from professional venture capitalists.

Then one of their  programmers started working on a side project. The side project got a  little traction but not much. But the CEO of Odeo decided to switch  strategies and go full force into the side project without having a clue  if it would work.

He felt bad since this isn’t what the  investors invested in. So he called up all of the investors, some of the  best investors on the planet, and described the side project to them  and all the traction they were getting, etc and then made an offer,  “Since this is a different direction, I’d be willing to buy all of your  shares back so nobody will lose any money.”

100% of his  investors said, “YES! GIVE IT BACK!” and so he bought all of his  investors’ shares back. Now, Ev Williams, the founder of Twitter (which  was the side project), is a billionaire as a result.

Nobody  knew. Nobody knows. You have to try multiple ideas and see which ones  gets the excitement of customers, employees, and you can see that people  are legitimately using it and excited by it.

When I started  Stockpickr someone once wrote me and said, “please block me from the  site. I’m too addicted to it and it’s ruining my life.” That’s when I  had a sense that I had a halfway decent idea. And that was one of ten  ideas I was trying simultaneously. The rest failed.

So don’t be  afraid to test, fail, test, fail, try again, repeat, improve, test,  fail again, and keep improving. The way to keep improving? Keep coming  up with ideas for your business and for other new businesses. The Wall Street Journa... James Altucher Best Price: $1.21 Buy New $10.41 (as of 08:50 EST - Details)

As your idea muscle improves, so will your ability to “fail quickly”.  Failing quickly is a better skill than executing quickly.


In 2009, I started The Leading Love Site on the Net. It was going to be a dating website  where your twitter feed was your profile. Everyone I spoke to say,  “that’s a great idea!” I had already raised money and was raising more.

Then, on the day I was going to close the fundraising round I woke up  shaking. I had this vision of myself a year from now explaining to all  of the investors why it wasn’t going to work. I returned all the money. I  was out the money I had spent to create the website.

I can  guess why it was a bad idea (people on dating sites want to be  anonymous, for instance) but I didn’t really know. I just knew I had to  return the money.

When your idea muscle is developed and the  other legs of the daily practice are fully developed (Phyiscal,  Emotional, Spiritual) you’ll have a better idea when you should shut  things down. When you are shutting them down for the right reasons. When  you are “failing quickly” as opposed to self-sabotage or fear of  success or you’re just stupid.

That was the last time I tried  to start a business. Since then I’ve done very well by not starting  businesses. Starting businesses is not the only way to make money in  this world. There are many ways.


I make a list of ideas and then I usually just throw them out.

The whole purpose is to exercise the idea muscle. I know most of the  ideas are bad ideas so I there’s no sense keeping them around.

If one of the ideas is good then I will probably remember it and build  on it for the next day. Sometimes it’s kind of funny when I come across  an old list of ideas to see what I was thinking. Every now and then I  think I find a good idea in my old lists but it’s rare.

And then what do I do with that rare good idea? Probably nothing.


No. Almost never. It’s hard to come up with over 3000 business ideas a year. I’m lucky if I come up with a few business ideas.

The key is to have fun with it. Else you don’t do it. People avoid things that are not fun.

Here’s some types of lists I make:

  • IDEA SEX. Combine two ideas to come up with a better idea. Don’t  forget that idea evolution works much faster than human evolution. You  will ALWAYS come up with better ideas after generations of idea sex.  This is the DNA of all idea generation.
  • OLD TO NEW: 10 old ideas I can make new. (Dorothy, Wall Street, etc). Similar to idea sex.
  • 10 ridiculous things I would invent (the smart toilet, etc).
  • 10 books I can write (The Choose Yourself Guide to an Alternative Education, etc).
  • 10 business ideas for Google / Amazon / Twitter / you
  • 10 people I can send ideas to
  • 10 podcast ideas I can do. Or videos I can shoot. (“Lunch with  James”, a video podcast where I just have lunch with people over Skype  and we chat).
  • 10 industries I can remove the middleman.
  • 10 Things I Disagree With that everyone else assumes is religion  (college, home ownership, voting, doctors). Or, for any one of those  ideas. 10 ideas why!
  • 10 ways to make old posts of mine and make books out of them
  • 10 ways I can surprise Claudia. (Actually, more like 100 ways. That’s hard work!)
  • 10 items I can put on my “10 list ideas I usually write” list
  • 10 people I want to be friends with and I figure out what the next  steps are to contact them (Azaelia Banks, I’m coming after you! Larry  Page better watch out also.)
  • 10 things I learned yesterday.
  • 10 things I can do differently today. Right down my entire routine  from beginning to end as detailed as possible and change one thing and  make it better.
  • 10 chapters for my next book
  • 10  ways I can save time. For instance, don’t watch TV, drink, have stupid  business calls, don’t play chess during the day, don’t have dinner (I  definitely will not starve), don’t go into the city to meet one person  for coffee,  don’t waste time being angry at that person who did X, Y,  and Z to you, and so on.
  • 10 Things I Learned from X. Where X  is someone I’ve spoke to recently or read a book by recently. I’ve  written posts on this about the Beatles, Mick Jagger, Steve Jobs,  Bukowski, the Dalai Lama, Superman, Freakonomics, etc.
  • Random: 10 Things Women Totally Don’t Know About Men. (that turned into a  list of 100 and Claudia said to me, “uhhh, I don’t think you should  publish this”).
  • Today’s list: 10 More Alternative to College I can Add to my book: “40 Alternatives to College”.
  • 10 Things I’m Interested in Getting Better At (and then 10 ways I can get better at each one).
  • 10 things I was interested in as a kid that might be fun to explore  now. (Like, maybe I can write that “Son of Dr. Strange” comic I’ve  always been planning. And now I need 10 plot ideas).
  • A  problem I have and ten ways I might try and solve it. This has saved me  with the IRS countless times. Unfortunately, the Department of Motor  Vehicles is impervious to my super powers.

This is just a  sample. Every day, 10 ideas. The other day, “10 ways I can release more  endorphins into my body”. Today is, “10 ways I can help people build  their idea machine”. Tomorrow is “10 Ways I can turn my next book into a  webinar for Oprah.” The day after that: “10 things I can talk about in  my next talk on May 3″ (which means, developing an entire standup comedy  act from scratch since I have a rule, “if it’s not funny, then a tree  fell in the forest and it didn’t make a sound.”)


No! They are all EQUAL.

Imagine you’re sitting on a stool. By the way, I only see stools in  bars because you have to be drunk to sit on a stool. It’s so  uncomfortable. And then invariably, someone falls off a stool and then  half the people laugh and half the people say “is he ok?” but everyone  crowds around because we smell blood.

So, now you’re on a stool  with four legs. If someone pulls away one of the legs you might still  balance and the stool stays up but it’s tricky. If someone pulls two  legs off, you’re down for the count.

The Daily Practice is to be: Physically, Emotionally, Mentally (the idea muscle), and Spiritually healthy.

If you aren’t physically healthy you won’t come up with ideas. You’ll be coughing and vomiting.

If you are around people who hate you, you won’t come up with ideas.  Because they will be yelling at you while you are trying to think.

And if you aren’t feeling grateful and calm in your life on a regular  basis, then you will be anxious and it will be harder to come up with  ideas.

So all four parts of the Daily Practice work together to come up with great ideas.


Let’s say you get tired for a day of writing ideas. Try something  different. The key is to keep activating parts of your brain that have  atrophied.

Sometimes if I don’t feel like writing down a list of ten ideas I’ll do something else.

Like I’ll draw ten eyes.

Or I’ll make a collage.

Or I’ll take photographs of the ten most beautiful women I see today.  Or the ten ugliest men (if I take picture of the ten most handsome men  then I might get jealous and that’s a whole other thing I’d have to deal  with).

Or I might come make ten prank calls (well, when I was a kid I did that. I never do that now! Maybe).


I don’t know. But I do. Here’s what I do:

At any given point I have about 10-20 books on my “to go” list. Books that I can just pop in and continue reading.

Every day I read at least 10% of a non-fiction book that gives me tons  of new ideas, an inspirational book, a fiction book of high-quality  writing, and maybe a book on games (lately I’ve been solving chess  puzzles). And then I start writing.

Right now the inspirational  book is “The Untethered Soul”. The non-fiction book is “Antifragile”.  The fiction book is “Blind Date” (Kosinski) and the games book is  actually my chess app (“Shreder”) which has non-stop puzzles. But this  list changes almost every day.


It takes at least six months of coming up with ideas every day before you are an “idea machine”.

Then your life will change every six months. I’ve said this before but  my life is completely different than it was six months ago, and six  months before that, and so on. So different there is no way I could’ve  predicted the differences.

Six months ago I had no podcast. Now  it’s a big part of my day. Six months before that, “Choose Yourself”  had not come out. Six months before that, several I had not yet gone on  several board seats that have done well for me. And so on.


When you come up with ideas for someone else, always give ALL the ideas  away for free if you think they are good ideas (remember: six months).

I read recently one person said to give HALF of your ideas away for free and make them pay for the other half.

This is very bad. This guarantees you will only come up with bad ideas.  Because you will hoard your ideas. You will develop a SCARCITY COMPLEX  around your ideas.

Ideas are infinite. But once you define your  capacity of good ideas (“half”) then they instantly become finite for  you. Not for anyone else. But just for you, your ideas will be finite.

If you stick to an abundance mentality, and be grateful for the ideas  that are flowing through you, then they will be infinite. Where they  come from, nobody knows. But they will be infinite and lucrative for  you.

So give ideas for free, and then when you meet, give more  ideas. And if someone wants to pay you and your gut feels this is a good  fit, then give even more ideas.


There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.

This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail. There  is an easy way to solve this. Take the word “fail” out of your  vocabulary.

Everything we do in life is a success. We breathe,  we love, we practice kindness, we deal with other human beings. We  improve. We have experiences. This is magnificent and abundant success.  Just even being able to try new things is something to celebrate every  day. To smile at another person. To play.

Most things I try to  do don’t work out as I planned. But who am I to predict the outcomes of  my preparation. My only job is to prepare.

Everybody,  EVERYBODY, is a poor predictor of outcomes. From the weatherman, to the  stock analyst. But we can all be good at preparation.

And once  I prepare, I show up at the starting line. Then the whistle blows, the  race begins, I try my hardest with the most amount of integrity, and the  results are not up to me.

Then I go back and learn from the  race, I prepare more, I love more, I celebrate more, and I shop up for  the next race. The whistle blows, and eventually good things happen.  Preparation leads to Faith in yourself.

I used to think good  things never happen. I saw my father die without anything good happening  to him. I thought my fate was going to parallel his. But every moment,  this moment while you are reading this, you get to choose abundance,  gratitude, kindness, integrity, “goodness”. Only you get to choose what  is in your universe.

When you don’t choose, you excuse.


Every day I come up with ideas. I haven’t had a business since 2009. And it failed, as mentioned above.

Since then I’ve made more money than I know what to do with because I  come up with ideas for people, for companies, for me, for people who  have no idea who I am, for random anonymous things.

I then get  invited to share my ideas. Sometimes I get paid for them. Sometimes I  give them for free. Sometimes I get more introductions to people and  sometimes I get a chance to advise companies that do well and make me  money. And sometimes I write books.

When you’re an idea  machine, everything you look at breaks down into a collection of ideas,  just like physical objects ultimately breakdown into collections of  particles if your eyes were subatomic microscopes. Your eyes and brains  become sub-idea microscopes that see the ideas that become the building  blocks for everything in society.

See them, build them, change  them, seed them, birth them, love them, live them. Ideas are the dark  matter of the universe. We know it’s there but only those “in the know”  can see them.

– – –

What do you do once you become an idea machine?

This is what I don’t know the answer to because you are the master of your life.

Now you have super powers. Now you’re ready to take your unique place  in the world. You will know how to get to the Justice League satellite  that orbits the Earth and solves problems at a moment’s notice.

You will know what to do. I don’t know. Nobody else knows. You’ll do it and the world won’t be the same.

Reprinted with permission from The Altucher Confidental.