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Mind of Jacka: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Nov 17, 2022

In my last blog post ("Honest, I'm Working"), I discussed how internal audit is wedded to the idea that we must look busy when at work — that being at work means you need to look like you're working. And I talked about the detrimental effect this has on our ability to think. We all need downtime to allow ourselves the opportunity to put together the pieces of information we gather throughout the day, the night, and all points in between.

In that post, I also spent a bit of time talking about how ideas are conceived. And toward that end, I mentioned the impact of serendipity. In particular, I mentioned how a newsletter I was reading aligned with a conversation I had been having with a friend of mine. Serendipity, in that case, was combining the concept that we all need time to think with how we get the information that provides us the fodder for that thinking. 

Serendipity is a marvelous thing. It is "the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way." (The dictionary's words, not mine.) And I might go so far as to say that all ideas have their roots in serendipity. Here's my spin on the definition: "The occurrence and development of ideas that come together by chance in a happy or beneficial way. The merging of concepts when it is least suspected."

If you think about any good idea you've had, there is a good chance you can trace it back to some event — some occurrence, some statement, some writings, some utterance, some bubble of a memory of something that happened before — to make that idea become a reality in your mind.

There is the famous quote attributed to Louis Pasteur, "Chance favors the prepared mind." And that is how we get ideas, by being prepared. And that is what serendipitous discovery is all about, being prepared. And the best way to be prepared is to gather enough information — as much information as possible — so that unexpected connections start being made. The more information, the better the odds such connections will be made. Chance favors the reader, the learner, and the ruminator.

The moral of this story (a moral that is coming in the middle of that story, but that just happens to be the way this all falls together) is that critical thinking, developing ideas, looking for alternatives, and creativity are at their best when we backlog a lot of information that, when we least suspect it, combines with something else.

Serendipity ensues.

So, where do we get all this information?

Well, as boring as it may sound, we get it from learning. But more than learning, we get it by being inquisitive — by wanting to know more and more about more and more. And then the answer gets even more boring, because the best way to satisfy that inquisitiveness is reading.

Blogs, articles, essays, books, novels, web pages — our world is inundated with information. And it is all there for us to explore. (Of course, in this world of false information and fake data, it must be added, choose wisely.)

Many of us do our best to "keep up." We keep up with internal audit, keep up with our business and the industry, keep up with regulatory and financial impacts that may be occurring. But it goes beyond just keeping up. Sure, such information is important and useful, the foundation for what we need to know. But it is not the fodder for greater things. We need more than just the foundational information in order for serendipity to raise its beautiful head.

It is about exploring. It is about being inquisitive. It is about spreading the widest net possible to gain as much information as possible. What are your interests? What is a subject that you can't get enough of? Do you want to know what is new in the world of marketing? Do the machinations of social media and its impact on business and people set your mind spinning? Do you read more science fiction than others think is humanly possible? Are you fascinated by the way Walt Disney put together his empire? Do the workings of geysers keep you glued to the latest research? These are a few of the things that I gravitate to. What are yours? And what might they have to say about anything you are trying to do? Serendipity, creativity, or idea generation is not about looking where people expect you to look; it is about finding ideas where others have not thought to tread.

One of my favorite quotes from "Men in Black" is, "Imagine what you'll know tomorrow." That is both the siren's song and clarion call for the truly inquisitive, the ones whom others will ask, "Where do you get your ideas?"

And now, a bit of lagniappe. The one thing I hear from everyone is that they just don't have the time to do the reading and gathering of information that they would like to do. I don't know where I got the following, but here's a tip on how to read 200 books in one year.

Most books have 50,000 words in them, so reading 200 of them means reading 10 million words. (I may have just made it worse.) Most people read 200 to 400 words per minute, so that means reading those 10 million words will take about 33,000 minutes or 550 hours. (I used 300 words per minute and did some rounding. Your mileage may vary.) Okay, so where do we get those 550 hours?

The average person spends 608 hours on social media and 1,642 hours watching television each year. Now, I know there is not a single one of you out there that spends anywhere near that time. Eliminating that much wasted time would allow a person to read 1,000 books in a year, and that's just silly. But, for those of us in the room here, simply cutting back — taking out, for example, 200 hours of social media and 350 hours of television watching — would free up time so that reading 200 books becomes an easy task.

No, I don't practice what I preach. I don't think I've ever read 200 books in a year. But I do a lot of reading. And I do a lot of research. And I do a lot of typing when I'm putting these things together. And I find that all of it comes together for what I think are fairly interesting ideas.

Pay attention to how you're spending your time. And then spend it wisely. Spread your net looking for information in previously unexplored nooks and crannies. And then watch as serendipity provides solutions you never dreamed of. And, you know what? You might have just a little bit of fun, too.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.