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Why President Sam Altman Thinks Idea Generation Is Crucial

Sam Altman is CEO of Open AI (makers of GPT-3) and the former president of Y Combinator.

He noticed that idea generation might be critical for startup success and shared some ideas on how to get better at it.

“Any time you can think of something that is possible this year and wasn't possible last year, you should pay attention. “

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Sam Altman has seen a lot of startups and founders in his career as an investor, founder, and president of Y Combinator.

Here are some of his recommendations for getting better at idea generation:

1. Remove haters
2. Live in the future
3. Ask what changed

A Failed Y Combinator Experiment

Sam writes that Y Combinator once tried funding a class of founders who seemed qualified and talented except for the fact they didn’t have an idea.

Every company in this class failed.

From that experience, he posits that the idea generating skill extends beyond the “macro” idea generation (what company to work on) to “micro” idea generation (what strategies, tasks, features, etc to pursue within the company).

In order to be a founder, you should get good at generating ideas.

1. Remove Haters

Ideas, especially new ones, are fragile. They aren’t born fully formed. Even the best ideas start half-baked.

Unfortunately, many people default to poking holes, ridiculing others, and generally being negative.

Instead, try to surround yourself with people who prop you up, help you improve your ideas, and bring new ideas to the table.

2. Live In The Future

Imagine what you think the world looks like in 20 years, then work back from there.

It should be crazy! It should seem bold, and audacious, and maybe even impossible.

As a reference point: the iPhone hasn’t even been out for 20 years (2021 at time of writing, first iPhone release in 2007). App stores weren’t a thing. Uber didn’t exist. People were buying airplane tickets at travel agencies and getting tickets mailed to them 3 weeks later.

Give yourself permission to imagine the unimaginable.

Relatedly, surround yourself with future thinking people.

Are the people around you excited about crypto, or AI, or technology? Are they curious? Do they experiment with new platforms or products?

Or are they clinging to the past, bemoaning every change? Complaining about what is lost and how scooters are cluttering our sidewalks?

Not all changes are good, but if you surround yourself with people who are future thinking, you’ll be exposed to more ideas from the future.

3. Ask Yourself What Has Changed

What has changed about the world recently?

New innovations and changing conditions unlock opportunities.

In the 80’s microprocessor improvements led to
Mobile phones spawned dozens of downstream industries - apps, peripherals
mRNA technology enabled the COVID-19 vaccine production

Sam writes: “Any time you can think of something that is possible this year and wasn't possible last year, you should pay attention.”

If a law changes, or social change occurs, or a new technology becomes available -- there’s almost always a downstream opportunity.

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