Imaginary Friends

Startup Weekend Manila 2011 has started registration.  Are you going to join?

Do you have an idea to pitch yet?  What? You don’t have an idea yet?  You have ideas but you’re still not sure which one is good enough?

Think about these questions for a minute:
Do you believe that you can come up with better ideas than what you have now?
Did you know, that just like any other part of your body, there are exercises you can do that help you get better ideas?

Okay then, let me introduce you to a technique that can help you get better ideas for Startup Weekend.

The Technique – “Imaginary Friends”

Have you ever asked yourself – “What would be a great idea for <…>? What should I do?”  Well  of course!  This is how we think most of the time, from a first person point of view.  We ask ourselves.

Now have you ever asked yourself “If I were Bill Gates how would I handle this?”  or “If Steve Jobs was designing this, how would he do it?”  It doesn’t have to be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of course, but you get the idea, right?  Sometimes we ask ourselves questions on how other people would think or do things.  This is the base of the technique, but we’ll kick it up a few notches and make it more effective.

Do you want to ask Mark Zuckerberg (or someone famous like him) for his opinion?  In reality that’s a one in a million long shot, but in your imagination this is entirely possible, and the answers you get may surprise you. :-)

Why The Technique Works

Before we go into the actual technique, let me explain why it works.  Our mind has “filters” that block and allow thoughts to pop-out from the subconscious part of our mind to our conscious mind.  When we think of ideas from the “I” viewpoint, the mind will filter ideas that bubble up from the subconscious to conform to what the mind’s view of “I” is (i.e. What your subconscious mind thinks about you.).

For example, one exercise I do in my seminars is the Alien Invasion exercise.  The first part goes “Imagine you are an Alien Invader and you want to kill humans.  Come up with ideas on how you can kill humans.”  The second part goes “Imagine you are a human spy that needs to document Alien fighting skills.  The more Alien killing skills you see, the more defenses the humans can come up with, thus resulting in more human lives saved”.  The goal in both is the same – generate a list of ways Aliens can kill humans.

The result is people get few ideas in the first part, and get a lot in the second.  What changed?  In the first, the person was looking at things from their point of view.  Even though consciously people knew it was an exercise, inside their minds, their subconscious was saying “Me (even as an alien) killing humans? – BAD”, and that subtly blocks a lot of the ideas that come out.  Now in the second part, the subconscious now thinks “Gather info – Save humans – GOOD” so now all the ideas now come out more freely because in this way, the subconscious desire to be “GOOD” is being fulfilled.

The concept is simple, but this makes a freakingly huge difference when we think and try to come up with ideas.  During the first part of the exercise, usually the participants are squeamish when describing their thoughts.  During the second part, I’m the one that gets squeamish because sometimes the ideas on how aliens can kill humans can get pretty wild.  But then in the exercise, doing this does help the humans create defenses that will save lives and so there are less blocks in the subconscious to the flow and generation of ideas.

In the case of generating ideas for startups, the concept is the same.  Your mind has filters based on what you are and will block ideas that you subconsciously do not associate with yourself.  For example, if you’re the shy, quiet type then your mind will block ideas that are daring, loud and audacious.  If you imagine asking a person that you perceive to be daring, loud and audacious then your mind will give the daring, loud and audacious ideas.

Since I already mentioned Mark Zuckerberg earlier let me tell you an example about how mental filters may be forming.  After the movie “The Social Network” was shown, I took note of some of the comments I got from people who watched the movie.  Here are some of them with my own thoughts about their reactions.


Comments My thoughts about their reactions
 Lawsuits are a bitch So is it fear of lawsuits themselves?  Or does the subconscious now start to fear  doing development work that may lead to lawsuits?
 I would never do that  Do what?  The negative actions you saw?  Or does the mind now associate all pioneering ventures with all the associated negative actions in the movie.
If I weren’t such a good guy, I’d be rich too.  So you have to be an asshole to get rich?  Or all good guys are destined to be poor?  Of course not!  I particularly disagree with this blanket statement.


Of course these are just off the cuff comments about a movie, but all these opinions are now part of the filtering process of their minds and will contribute in different levels to the way they think.

But then you might ask, “Won’t these ideas be a mismatch for me?”.  Nope!  Do not censor or judge the ideas that you get at this point.  At this point just keep collecting and talking note of the thoughts and ideas that may come to you.  You still have to consciously evaluate these ideas later on anyway.  That’s when you do more thinking and development based on these ideas.  And sometimes the workable idea you get actually started from ideas that at first seemed unworkable.  Example: “If you get the idea to go to the homes of 1000 people to directly sell the product and if you only have 2 employees, this might not be possible.  But then as you work on it, other ideas come to mind.  Can you do it through an email instead of a house to house campaign?  Can you ride on a direct selling company to carry your product rather than trying to do it yourself? Get it?  Useful ideas may spring forth from seemingly useless ideas.

When and How to use The Technique

You do this to get ideas that you would not normally get when using the “I” perspective. Use this technique to get as many ideas as you want.  Ideas are seeds.  You do not have to agree with the initial ideas you get.  You still have to analyze them for practicality, grow them, develop them and then determine if it’s logically a good thing to do – the same thing you do with any other idea you get, regardless of the method you use.

You can use this technique as part of your set of creative thinking tools.  Keep doing the things you already do when trying to think of ideas.  Keep on asking from the “I” point of view.  Then use this technique as well.  Then look for other techniques out there that you can learn as well.  Some techniques work better for certain people.  See what works for you.

Just like in physical sports where you learn and practice a lot of techniques in order to perform well, the same goes for the sport of mental creative thinking.  You need to learn and practice a number of techniques so that in the long run, you’ll start getting better and winning.  Practice, practice, practice!

Notes to people who may experience difficulty at the start

Don’t worry about it.  The reason there’s a prepared question and answer part is to get your mind used to the image of an imaginary character talking.  And the later part about imagining the character saying “… if I get ideas I’ll let them pop-out in your mind …” is to program your mind to work in the background to help give you ideas later.

Notes to people who may experience extreme ease! Don’t get creepy on me! :-)

I haven’t experienced this in any of the seminars I’ve done or the companies I’ve worked for since most people in the industries I work in are logical minded anyway and I do a lot of prepping and explaining in my seminars.  However, in my early days when I used to attend all sorts of talks in different fields, I have seen some people who get a bit of an “awakening” when doing exercises similar to this.  They’re the ones who seem to have heavy mind filters, and when those filters are bypassed for the first time they get a lot of new thoughts and ideas and they get alarmed. When an imaginary character starts to talk back, seemingly on their own, they just stop doing it.  Or some creepier people misinterpret the experience and attribute it to some supernatural power and take the thoughts they get literally (which is not only creepy, but potentially dangerous).

Yes, you want to be able to access that part of your mind with the thoughts and ideas that you normally don’t have access to.  It’s a great thing to be able to use more of your mind.

Just realize – it’s still your mind.  It’s a part of you.  If it’s easy for you to talk to the imaginary character, then you are not going nuts.  You are not talking to aliens, spirits or any other supernatural forces.  You are accessing a part of your mind that you just weren’t able to before because of the filters that existed before.

And remember, just with any other thought or idea you have, you still have to consciously analyze and validate it later.  You don’t just take an idea literally and do it right away without thinking.  You still have to ask yourself: Is it useful? Will it work? What needs to be done to improve it? Is it valid?  Is it possible? Is it feasible? Is it moral?  Is it legal?  Will it hurt others?  Will if be beneficial to others?

After that conscious analysis, then you can decide on how to use the thought or idea.  It’s your idea – you are responsible and accountable for it, not the characters you imagine in your mind.  Got that?  Good!

How to Do The Technique

Now enough of the prep talk.  Let’s do the technique.

Step 1: Relax

Get yourself in a comfortable position, take a couple of deep breaths and relax.  Treat this as a fun game.  There is no right or wrong result.  And the beauty of it is that you can repeat this technique again and again and again, and each time you’ll improve and get better at it.

Step 2: Preparation

You’re going to need to think of three things that you’ll need for this exercise.

1. Have you asked people for advice about Startup Weekend?  You’ve probably asked family members, friends, classmates, teachers, co-workers, your boss, mentors or advisors and other people, right?  But of course you’re limited only to people you already know, and have access to.

Do you have a person you would like to ask?  Is there someone you look up to in the industry that you dream of talking to and asking advice from?  Use your imagination.  There are no limits since this is a game using your imagination.  Bill Gates?  Steve Jobs?  Founders of large successful companies?  Heads of Venture capital companies?  Business angels?  You can always do this exercise later and you can do it with different people.  If you’re doing this for the first time, just pick the first one you can think of.

2. Second, you also need to think of an initial question you want to ask this person.  It may be “What can I pitch at Startup Weekend Manila that has the best chance of winning?” or some other question you’d like.

3. Third, once you have that question, ask yourself.  If you were to ask that person this question, what do you think his answer would be?  Yes, that’s right, you think of the answer yourself.  It doesn’t have to be profound or even correct.  You just need to come up with any generic answer you can think of.

*** If you’re doing this exercise, specially for the first time, don’t spend too much time over-analyzing your selection of people, questions and answers.  Usually, the first few people, questions or answers that pop out of your mind will be ok.  And again, as you use this technique, you’ll get better and better at it.

Step 3: Read the following instructions first, don’t do it yet

Close your eyes and imagine that person calls you up, invites you over to his office and gives you an hour of his time.  Picture this in your mind:  You’re there in that person’s office and that person is there sitting across a table in front of you.  Now imagine that you are now asking that person your question.  Imagine that person now talking to you and giving you the answer that you thought of earlier.

Now imagine yourself asking that person, “Is there anymore advice that you want to give or ideas you want to share? Please tell me.”.  And pause for a while and wait for the person to answer.  If you can imagine the person giving answers and talking, just keep listening.  If ideas suddenly come into your mind then just take note of them.  If no more ideas come out or you just imagine the person there just sitting there and doing nothing more, then just imagine yourself saying “Thank you”  thanking him for his time and then imagine him saying “Come back and ask me more anytime, ok, and don’t worry, if I get any ideas I’ll let the thoughts pop-out into your mind later.”.  That’s it.  Now open your eyes slowly.

Step 4: Just do it

Ok, now that you’ve read the above instructions.  Do it now.  Close your eyes and go through the exercise.  Don’t worry too much about getting all the details right.  Just do it with a playful attitude, like playing a casual game.

Some people may find it easier if they have visual or audio cues so I made this youtube video to guide you through the exercise itself.

Step 5: What to do next

So you did the exercise. Now you take note of any ideas, insights or thoughts that may have popped out during the time you were doing it.  If you did get something, then this is the time to logically analyze those thoughts and ideas.  Sometimes ideas are literal and sometimes it’s symbolic – thoughts that may mean something to you / your subconscious, or sometimes at the start you may not get anything at all.  Just keep practicing.

Q & A

Should the imaginary characters really talk back?

I should write some more about how the ideas would appear in later blog entries.  The mental image of people talking back is what we picture because that’s what we expect to happen in the real world.  But in many cases, the ideas you get can happen during or after the exercise but it doesn’t have to come from the imaginary character itself.  Sometimes you just simply get a thought that pops into your mind.

Can I skip the prepared question and answer part?

Yes, the prepared question and answer part is a way of just letting your mind to get used to the character talking.  Once you feel comfortable with the technique, you can always do it freestyle where you don’t have any prepared questions or answers and just imagine yourself having a freewheeling conversation.

Any tips on how to improve the technique?

Yes, that’s a whole new set of topics I’ll need to write about later, but the basic idea is to make the exercise as “real in your mind” as possible.  When you’re imagining the setting, take the time to try to fill in as many details as you can. What color are the walls? What’s the type of decor?  Can you smell anything?  What does the person wear?  What does the chair you’re sitting on feel like.  Try to involve all your senses in that imaginary setting.  This will help your subconscious get over the “filters” it needs to, and it makes it easier to get the thoughts and ideas out to your conscious mind.

Does it have to be an office?

Nope.  It’s up to your imagination.  The whole point of the exercise is to imagine talking to a person and getting advice from that person.  The location, mood, setting is all up to you.  Imagine it as a movie production inside your head.  Try meeting in an office, restaurant, yacht, golf game, stadium, hot tub. It’s one of the things you control so have fun with it.

Do you use this technique yourself?

Hell yeah!  I guess the best example would be in the early days when I was using this, I usually did it with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Did I get a lot of ideas I normally wouldn’t even have considered?  Yes. But most of the time I was getting lectured on.  I wanted immediate success with hot tubs and yacht vacations.  They rambled about me being too lazy (Which was to a certain extent, true.).  They kept talking about 80 hour work weeks and such stuff (WTF!??).  Yes, the viewpoints I got were really different from what I would normally have thought of. :-)

Will I get rich from the ideas I get?

Ha ha, that depends entirely on you.  Getting ideas and making money out of them are two separate issues.  Of course getting ideas is the start of it.  I can safely say I’m qualified to teach techniques that help create ideas.  Now about techniques that can actually make you successful based on those ideas?  That’s still something I’m working on.  But, just to let you know, I have been conducting research on this as well.  My pet project for this is a logbook I call the secret book of success.  I started this more than 10 years ago.  I ask people a simple question – “What is the secret of your success?” and I write down what they say in the logbook.  It’s still a work in progress.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to talk and blog about that too.

So this will get me to win startup weekend?

Ha ha.  Who knows? This will however, surely be a great additional technique for you to help you generate new ideas and fine tune your existing ones.

That’s it then.  Enjoy using this technique.  Keep practicing.  Keep learning – there’s a lot of creative thinking techniques out there.  Just do a search for “Creative thinking Techniques” in your favorite search engine.  And I hope to see you with your ideas at Startup Weekend Manila 2011!

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