How to Get Unstuck and Solve Problems

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The most valuable thing in the world is a good idea.

Sometimes we think up something fantastic and find out it’s already been done and feel discouraged. But so what? Now we know we can think of really good ideas.

Many years before Apple invented the iPod and before the internet was commonplace, I thought of MP3 players.

I didn’t think of portable ones, though, so my idea would have never worked. But I did think of a large stereo amplifier where you could buy songs and they would be stored there (just in that one place!) like a jukebox. Essentially, a really crappy version of iTunes.

I always liked that something I thought up one day became an awesome thing. I like the real version so much better than my idea, so I’m glad Steve Jobs was on the case.

I’m getting obsessed with idea generation. As someone who works in marketing, writes stories and aspires to write books, I can’t think of a skill I’d rather have than the ability to generate solid, actionable ideas anytime I want or need to.

My favorite writer James Altucher has been writing about this over and over and over again. He writes down 10 ideas every day. For what? For whatever. Anything. Everything.

Ten ways to improve a cable company’s customer service.

Ten ways I could lose weight.

Ten ideas for getting a better night’s sleep.

Ten things for which to feel grateful.

Ten local businesses I could help with my skillset and knowledge base.

Ten places I can visit this year.

Ten people I could introduce to one another for business or social reasons.

Ten things I could do today to have more fun and feel happy.

There is no subject too big or too small. The reason Altucher writes down 10 ideas a day is to exercise what he calls the Idea Muscle. He insists whatever parts of our brain (I’m not a neurologist) are responsible for idea generation can be flexed and pushed and strengthened through repetitious exercise.

I believe him.

But, It’s Too Hard

My son says that about tying his shoes or reading advanced books or accurately throwing a frisbee or about any number of things he’s still learning how to do. He’s 6.

I know what he means.

There are so many things I used to be terrible at doing, but now I’m really good because I’ve done them thousands of times.

I still forget that lesson even though I’m 36 and am supposed to be an adult now.

I couldn’t write 10 ideas every day because when I have a million things to choose from I can never make a choice.

I do much better with prompts or with parameters. Constraints, if you will. Creative constraints are a valuable thing, and Twitter and it’s 140-character limit is probably the best modern-day example of it.

I would talk about this 10-idea-a-day concept with friends and associates. But I never really had any personal experience to back it up because I found it so difficult to do.

But then me and a couple partners started a side business, and one of the first things we do with prospective clients is thoroughly go over their business and come up with a list of 10 things we think we could do to improve it. It’s a fantastic exercise, and I’m pretty good at it.

My problem isn’t that I’m not capable of generating 10 ideas. I’m actually decent at it. I just have a lot of trouble honing in on specifics. Once I learned the value of artificial constraints on my ability to generate new ideas, the shackles came off. And now I’m getting better.

Enter James Altucher’s wife—Claudia Altucher. She wrote a book recently called “Become an Idea Machine,” based on this very idea. And in the book, she provides 180 idea prompts because if you come up with 10 ideas every day for 180 days, you will be an idea machine, she writes—someone capable of brainstorming viable, actionable ideas for any problem you might face.

I can’t think of one thing I’d rather be good at than the ability to come up with creative solutions on demand—in business meetings, in helping my son learn to think and problem-solve, in my personal life to help others and myself.

I’ve been writing 10 ideas a day based on Claudia Altucher’s prompts. Ten online courses (with curriculum) that I’d like to take. Ten mobile apps that would improve my life. Ten things that would improve commercial airline travel. Ten new recipes.

The point isn’t necessarily to generate phenomenal ideas (though you might!).

The point is simply to exercise the muscle. To get better at the part where you come up with creative solutions to problems.

At work. At home. In your social life. In your spiritual life. Financially. Physically. Et cetera.

The first few ideas are always easy. Then it gets hard and you make your mind sweat a little. That’s when the growth happens.

At some point, I’m pretty sure the prompts will ask me to come up with 10 new ideas by combining ideas that have already been thought of.

Endless possibilities.


Someone who reads this blog wrote me. They’re sad. And they feel stuck. And I don’t want them to feel stuck.

And they don’t have to.

There are 10 groups or clubs or gyms or hobbies or classes they could join today to learn a new skill and meet new people.

There are 10 new careers they could pursue.

There are 10 things they could do that might make a spouse or partner feel more loved and appreciated.

There are 10 things they know more about than most people and could write books or make videos or teach an online course about.

There are 10 ways to laugh more.

There are 10 people to call or email or text RIGHT now because you love them and they need to know in case someone doesn’t wake up tomorrow or the world ends.

There are 10 people to hug. And 10 people to help. And 10 people to forgive.

There are always 10 things you can do this week, and tomorrow, and later tonight, and right now.

Things that might change the whole world. Or things that might only change you.

Sometimes, there isn’t any difference.

9 thoughts on “How to Get Unstuck and Solve Problems”

  1. I follow James on Facebook; he is one of my favorites as well. His post today related to pushing his wife past her comfort zone and that “all things have to be perfect” feeling we all have. It was a wonderful post…as is this.

    I know you are a writer by trade and this blog started as a way to process your feelings of divorce. But just think how many people have been touched..perhaps lives made better..or at the very least it has perhaps inspired someone to be a better partner in their relationship. We don’t have to be perfect…we just have to take the first step, fall, get up and try again. If we don’t exercise that muscle it’s a pretty static existance. Everything great was once someone’s “not perfect” idea.

    Thanks for reinforcing that thought for me today.

    1. That’s excellent, Robin. That guy never ceases to make me rethink things and ask myself better questions.

      Also, I just like the way he writes.

      I appreciate you reading and commenting. Hope you’re having a good day.

  2. As always, very well-written and inspirational. You honor me with your thoughtfulness and suggestions…
    It’s a terrible thing to feel stuck, especially when there are others in situations so much worse, right? It’s like we are temporarily blinded by our own pain and strife we just can’t see past it.
    You’re right though – there are always options, always choices.
    It would do us all well to remember that (although in my case, there aren’t even 10 people in my life I could call or hug or text, unfortunately – maybe about 4, 5 tops).

    Hope springs eternal, hm? One of the most prominent beauties of life.
    There are always possibilities…sigh. Now to just muster the strength and energy, yeah?

  3. While I’m lucky to know a variety of people through work and social channels, I sometimes catch myself lamenting the fact that my life isn’t like it used to be.

    In high school and college, I always had a million people to get together with and have fun with. It wasn’t trying to find something to do. It was deciding between several things.

    It’s not like that anymore. A combination of moving to a new place, and getting divorced, and having a son, etc.

    Now, I’m not living the life socially that I would prefer to. And sometimes I think I’m a victim of circumstance. And maybe in some ways, I am.

    But I know there are a ton of ways I could meet new people if I wanted to.

    I could volunteer–there are never enough of them at local shelters and charities.

    I could create and host Meetup groups based on all my favorite things. (Or join one.)

    I could get involved with a social club or church or fitness center or whatever else.

    If blogging has taught me any lessons, it’s that when I want something for myself, trying to help other people solve that same problem is the best way for me to connect with others and learn how to get whatever the thing is I want.

    Maybe you can be the person that introduces people of mutual interests to one another. Maybe you could document the entire process and blog it all along the way and create the blueprint for how people can grow a healthy social network out of thin air.

    I think that’s a book or blog that I’d want to read.

  4. I really enjoyed this post; its tying in very nicely with the book I’m reading tonight – Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. The piece i’ve just read was about how important it is to push ourselves and lose the pursuit of perfection, just get down the shitty first drafts and see what evolves from it. I like the idea of lists, I’m going to try that and see what comes of it.

    Also in relation to your comment below about your social life not being where you’d like it to, I joined and went to my very first meetup group this evening. And, for me, this is so far beyond my comfort zone and is something I would never have considered an option until recently. But it was fun! So much more fun than I thought it could be and now, as well as feeling pride that I challenged myself, I’ve spent an evening in great conpany having one of the most diverse and interesting conversations i’ve had in a while. Think about it, I’ll definitely be doing it again.
    Great post as always Matt!

    1. Thank you for the kind words! Bird by Bird is one of the most-outstanding things I’ve ever read, and on the subject of writing, certainly the best. Anne Lamott is spectacular. I really should read that again. And then again. And then again.

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post when you’re in the middle of something so wonderful.

  5. I think the world is ready for a pizza-sized-slice-of-pepperoni… To be placed on a pizza, of course.

    This way, every bite will contain pepperoni.

    You’re welcome inventors 🙂

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Matt Fray

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