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Ideas are Living Things

Ideas are alive. They are living things with a sense of agency. They get distributed through people*, the vessels, but they are independent of people. They live even after people die.

People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.

Carl Jung

Like genes, ideas evolve and have an agenda of their own. They grow, replicate, survive, and die. They inhabit certain people whose minds are fertile to nurture and breed those ideas. Some minds are fertile for certain types of ideas — like Mozart for musical ideas — but the ideas themselves are independent of people.

Many artists and scientists describe that ideas “come to them”.

Archimedes had a flash of inspiration while sitting in a bathtub, which led to his discovery of the principle of buoyancy. Nicola Tesla said that he had complete visions of AC power come to him in his imagination. Ramanujan claimed to have theorems in infinite series come to him from the Goddess Namagiri. Einstein developed his theory of relativity while daydreaming as a patent clerk.

We aren’t the source of creativity, we’re just a vessel.

If I had an idea, it should drive. The idea says, ‘get in the car’. And I’m like, ‘where am I going?’. And the idea says, ‘don’t worry, I’m driving’. Sometimes I’m shotgun. Sometimes I’m in the fucking trunk. The idea takes you where it wants to go.

Dave Chappelle in a conversation with Jerry Seinfeld

Ideas live in a world of their own. They inhabit us and cause us to do things, just like the microbiomes in our intestines. When we have an idea, we are transformed by it for good. Ideas grow in our minds, then assume us, and potentially the world. They can cause us to move continents, marry someone, start movements, or go to war.

Musicians that surrender to the moment have more musical ideas. 

We’re trying to tap into the eternal music that’s always playing in the cosmos somewhere. The best thing I can do as a musician is to lose myself, forget about myself and whatever I’m trying to do. And be all ears and hands. There’s no ego, there’s no Phil. There’s only the music that comes through that pipeline… and you just pass it through.

Phil Lesh from the Grateful Dead on creating music.

Meta-ideas like freedom and democracy provide hospitable environments for ideas to breed. Ideas breed more freely in a democracy than a dictatorship.

There’s a global hive mind: ideas are a grand, inter-generational collaboration. All the ideas that have ever been thought of get remixed and influence us. We unconsciously inherit ideas that have passed through generations and our physical world is shaped by them. A seemingly straightforward question like “what is the time now?” has gone through several iterations over thousands of years. In ancient societies, it would have referred to the position of the sun, moon, or stars, while in more recent history it would have referred to the time indicated by a mechanical clock. Modern physics would say that the question itself doesn’t make sense because there is no “now” — there is no objective separation between the past, present, and future.

If ideas are alive, what does it mean for us as individuals? 

Live intensely, work intensely, show up to create whether you’re feeling like it or not, whether you are good at it or not. Showing up creates a fertile environment for ideas to thrive. When the idea comes to you, surrender to it. Let it flow through you and it might take you to a place you haven’t been. So much of creativity is a surprising re-assembly of ideas that have been lodged in our minds from years of being alive, truly alive.

In ancient Greece, people believed that creativity came from the divine rather than from humans. That muses, the goddesses of the arts and sciences, inspired people like Homer to write the Iliad and the Odyssey. Separating the creator from their creation let them be more creative.

When you believe that ideas are alive, you tend to have more interesting ideas.

*The most fascinating thing about ChatGPT and large language models is that they are also vessels, like people, for ideas to grow, replicate, and evolve.