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Accidental Genius Summary

I’ve just finished reading Accidental Genius by Mark Levy (second edition) on my Kindle. I’ve really, really enjoyed the book, so I decided to write a detailed summary of it, capturing all the “Accidental Genius” ideas. Enjoy!

I would say that alternative name of this book could be “How to think”. It is a must read.

The subtitle of the book is “Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content”, and it is a very appropriate one. Additionally, the techniques described can be used to solve any problem, whether business or personal. I believe that the ideas found in “Accidental Genius” are extremely powerful.

Accidental Genius will rock your world if you need to do any of the following:

  • Think deeply
  • Create great content (article, book, speech)
  • Solve any problem
  • Come up with awesome ideas
  • Get unstuck
  • Get creative
  • Organize your mind and thoughts
  • Help someone with any of these things

The core idea of the book is Freewriting

Freewriting is a fast method of thinking onto paper. It is basically about spilling your mind onto paper or computer, without any judgment or stopping – just fast continuous writing, going with the flow. You can even talk to yourself in your writing, or write “blah blah blah” repeatedly when stuck. It is the quantity that is important. Quality can be distilled later by editing.

Writers block? Pffff. That doesn’t exist in the realm of Freewriting. Just write – even if it’s crap. You are thinking already, so write the thoughts. Even if you have to write about how you don’t have anything to write, you can write.

The Freewriting technique in allows you to access and exploit your subconscious mind – that’s where the “genius” lives. It enables you access the raw stream of thoughts directly from your sub consciousness. The results are almost always incredible.

And it works for everyone. Even if you hated school writing assignments, you will love Freewriting.

About this summary

I will summarize all chapters of the book here, so you will get all the main ideas.

If this summary intrigues you, I wholeheartedly recommend you to get the book, as it contains many stories and additional material that vividly illustrate the techniques presented and their application.

The book is divided into 3 parts:

  • Part 1 talks about the six secrets of Freewriting.
  • Part 2 adds additional ideas, tools, and techniques.
  • Part 3 talks about publicizing the written content (as blog posts, speeches, books, etc).

Part 1 – Six Secrets of Free Writing

Secret #1: Try Easy

You do not have to try hard. In fact, it is best when you give only 90% effort.

Begin your writing by reminding yourself to try easy. Remind yourself that you do not want produce perfect prose that will be cherished and treasured for generations to come; you just want to write some decent words. You just want to dump your brain.

Lower your expectations, and be pleasantly surprised.

Secret #2: Write Fast and Continuously

When you write fast and continuously, you will adopt easy and accepting attitude, which unblocks your subconscious mind.

If you write slowly, your talking mind will creep in. We don’t want that. The talker in your head sucks. There is only so much mental resources, and the talker will eat too much of them. The talker shuts down your genius sub-conscious computer, which can access all your memories, thoughts, experiences, ideas.

Writing continuously is also important. You want to suppress the editor (a.k.a. censor) in your mind, so the idea-producer can do its job unchained. The “inappropriate” thoughts can often be the key, so you want to make sure they can appear in your writing.

When you get stuck, you can:

  • Babble nonsense onto the page
  • Repeat the last word again and again
  • Repeat the last letter you’ve pressed on your keyboarddddddddd
  • Write anything that comes to your mind, even if it is completely unrelated to the writing

Your mind will quickly get unstuck and come with a new thought to write about.

It’s all about the quantity, uncensored. Think of yourself as word/thought producing factory.

Secret #3: Work Against a Time Limit

Pomodoro technique works brilliantly with Freewriting.

When you are Freewriting, set a short time limit for yourself – e.g. 10 or 20 minutes. You can use a kitchen timer or some software for this.
The time limit is important for two reasons:

  1. The limit energizes your writing effort by giving you parameters. You can go “all in”. Deadlines motivate.
  2. The limit keeps you writing, so you’ll have a chance for a genius moment. You will write even if you’re feeling uninspired, which is a very good thing: Paradoxically, you can get the best ideas when writing the worst junk.

Secret #4: Write the Way You Think

You need to get your raw thoughts.

Don’t write the way you speak, write the way you think. Your speech is already censored.

If you really write the way you think, your writing will probably make no sense to other people. That’s a sign you’re doing it right. (Don’t show it to other people, though. Write for yourself. Knowing that someone else might see the text would activate the little totalitarian censor in your mind.)

To achieve this kind of writing, do:

  1. Use your language.
  2. Keep quiet about things that need no explanation.
  3. Jump around just as your mind does.

You’re the only person that needs to understand what you write.

Freewriting isn’t really writing, it’s a means of watching yourself think.

Secret #5: Go with the Thought

When doing an improv theater, it is a golden rule to always accept the situation and agree with what other actors say. Think “YES, AND”.

Go with what you’re given. Always go with the thought that you’ve just written.

It’s all about “agreeing and extending”. It’s a great way to get “far”.

When you go with a thought, you assume that the thought is true, and you can take a series of logical steps. Just like this: If A is true, that means B is true. And if B is true, that means C is true. And if C is true, …

Secret #6: Redirect Your Attention

When you run out of things to say, you can use “focus changer”. Focus changer is a question you ask yourself on paper that requires you to comment on something you’ve just written. It keeps you moving, and helps you focus on the yet unexplored parts of a situation.

Examples of focus changers include:

  • What was I thinking here?
  • How else can I say that?
  • What am I missing here?
  • What I am wrong about here?
  • What I am doing right?
  • What does this remind me of?
  • How would I describe this to my grandmother?

Etc. The book includes many more such example questions. You can (and should) also invent your own focus changers.

Part 2 – Powerful Refinements

The second part of the book talks about Freewriting applications, exercises, and techniques that allow you to get the most out of it.

Idea as Product

This chapter talks about why is the conversion of your thoughts into a paper product important.

Having your ideas written is important because as the written product shows you where you’ve been, it also suggests where you haven’t been. It’s a map of your mind.

Prompt Your Thinking

Prompts are Freewriting exercise. When doing this exercise, you begin the Freewriting session with a pre-determined prompt.

Prompts are open-ended phrases to warm you up and to send your mind into unanticipated directions.

Prompts allow you to find many hidden jewels that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.

Some examples of prompts include:

  • The best part of my workday is…
  • Yesterday I saw a curious thing…
  • If I didn’t have to work, I’d…
  • I threw a stone and it landed…
  • I remember….
  • I’d love to learn about…
  • If I did the opposite of everything I normally do, my day would look like this…
  • I love…
  • I hate…
  • I should do more…
  • You know what I’d like to do again?
  • If I were guaranteed success, the project I’d take on would be…

The very generic ones can work wonders:

  • The storm
  • It was getting dark…
  • The birds were singing…
  • I opened the door…
  • Three days from now…

Prompts are somewhat similar to one of my long-time favorite techniques – question answered on paper. Basically, you write a question, and then start answering it. That’s it. It’s like querying your mind.

When you make the question very open-ended, you are not looking for specific answers, and it’s a prompt. The result will be a surprise. On the other hand, when the question is very specific, so will be the answers.

Open Up Words

When you “open up a word”, you redefine it and give it a personal meaning. The way the world sees that word and its meaning might not be the same way you see it.

  • The first step is to pick the word. You’ll often come across words whose definitions are taken for granted, no-brainers. These are great words to open up. Some words might always seem negative and others positive, and yet, the true meaning might be entirely different.
  • The second step is to write the common definitions of the word. What the world sees.
  • In the third step, you ask yourself if you agree or disagree with that definition, and go into detail about your opinion. Write your personal definition.
  • In the fourth final step, you summarize what you’ve learned. Just a couple of sentences should do. This helps you integrate the newly gained knowledge.

Exercise to try is to make a list of 5 common jargon words from your industry, and open up each for five minutes.

Escape Your Own Intelligence

When you are Freewriting, you should reach for obvious facts. Don’t overlook the truth hidden behind complex mental constructs of the problem you are trying to solve.

We humans have the tendency to make things really, really complicated. Sometimes, this is a bad thing.

When you write all the obvious facts about the situation, you will quickly see what makes sense and what is important. The ridiculous bullshit will be naked in the lights of the obvious.

The obvious facts can help you cut through the fog. Let one fact suggest the next.

The Value in Disconnecting

When you write long enough, your handwriting will really relax, and the internal editor will completely disappear. It’s the total uncramping of the hand and brain. The raw mind can finally shine through.

What is long enough? When you start getting tired, it is long enough. 30-minute session of fast non-stop writing should do the trick.
Never be afraid to turn your back on what you’ve already written. Disconnecting from the material can be just as valuable as connecting to it. Feel free to write “All what I’ve written up to this point is bullshit. The truth is that…”

Using Assumptions to Get Unstuck

One way of making a breakthrough is by trashing a paradigm. For example, people once believed that Earth is flat. That was a paradigm. All that was needed to ditch that paradigm was a perspective shift.

The perspective shift allows you to approach your problem using an entirely different perspective.

A structured approach to do this is to ask yourself:

  1. What problem am I trying to solve? (Be as general as possible. Nothing specific. For example – “How do I build a fan base for something unknown?”)
  2. Who has solved it?
  3. How have they solved it?
  4. How can I apply their solution to my problem?

(This might require some research.)

Getting a Hundred Ideas Is Easier Than Getting One

The name of this chapter pretty much sums it up. When you have to come up with an idea, don’t try to come up with a single perfect fabulous idea. Instead of one 100% idea, go for hundred ideas of varying quality.

When you go for a single idea, you need to create and judge at the same time. When you go for hundred ideas, the quality is a non-issue. This allows you to focus entirely on the creation. One idea leads to the next – but not if you judge it and discard it.

You can’t create a killer idea from thin air anyway. You need material to work with.

You want to look for ALL the ideas first, and only then for the ONE single best idea.

Learn to Love Lying

Problem situations can often seem like closed environments. Everything is set, there are no options. But this is usually an illusion; things are seldom set in stone.

One way to overcome this rigidity which often prevents you from seeing the solution is to simply tell yourself a lie about the situation. A single lie can lead to a chain of thinking that will solve your problem.

Some examples:

  • If an element in your situation is small, think of it as micro or huge
  • Tall, think skyscraper-high or subbasement-low
  • Clever, think genius or completely stupid
  • Nuisance, think of it as intolerable or a blessing
  • Abnormal, think freakish or natural

Lying can help you discover the false limits that we set for ourselves in order to be “realistic”.

Hold a Paper Conversation

This one is fun.

You can talk to anyone. Steve Jobs, your local grocer, your grandmother, Oprah, talking owl, yourself 20 years ago or 20 years in the future. Or, you can remove yourself entirely from the situation and produce a discussion between others.

There are two rules to make these conversations successful:

First, when holding a paper conversation with a character, it’s important to make the character as real as possible. Before holding a paper conversation with a character, take a couple of minutes to write about the character. Be as specific as possible. Go as far into detail as you want. Also, don’t forget to think about the place where the conversation is taking place.

Second, get the characters to make you speak. Let yourself do the majority of the talking during the conversation. The character should act mainly as a gentle guide which draws fresh observations from your own words.

Drop Your Mind on Paper

Freewriting is a component-based system.

Mix the techniques, exercises and session lengths.

Talk to yourself on paper about any resistance you might be feeling about your problem or the Freewriting method.

Save all your written material, so you can re-read it or continue later.

The Writing Marathon

A ten minute session of Freewriting might not sometimes quite cut it.

Sometimes, you might even need six hours or more.

The bad part is that you might feel physically uncomfortable at the end of the marathon. The good part is that you might discover answers that have been hiding from you for a lifetime.

Very long stretches of continuous writing certainly work for some. For example, popular blogger Steve Pavlina often writes very lengthy posts that take up to 10 hours of continuous writing to create.

The Freewriting marathon is not just 6 hours of non-stop Freewriting, it works a bit differently.

First, you need a starter thought. The process is then as follows:

  • Write for 20 minutes non-stop
  • Go through what you’ve written and underline or bold the most interesting parts.
  • Ask yourself – what do I want to explore next? (It should send you in a new direction. If you get what you expect, it isn’t good enough.)
  • Repeat.

Doubt Yourself

Recognize when you are stuck, and get unstuck.

Not everything you write will be brilliant. There will be a lot of great stuff, but you will undoubtedly find many bad or wrong thoughts in your writing. Also, there will be thoughts that you will become tired of. You can recognize them because it will seem that you come across them far too often.

These thoughts might be important indicators of areas where you need to change.

If you always come to same thoughts (“I really should finish X”), or the same people (“Peter is the key to finding a way out of this”), or the same language, or you are continually critical of yourself or others, and in many other cases where you repeat yourself, your thinking is clearly stuck.

However, that’s fine! Even if you are stuck in life, you can describe just exactly the way you’re stuck. Once you do that, you will immediately realize that you can’t go on like that anymore, and gain a new way to freedom.

The Magic of Exact Writing

Exact writing allows you to get to the core of any problem or situation.

The case with exact writing is similar to the concept of “100 ideas”. It is impossible to exactly describe the situation in a few brief
sentences outright. You need to flood the page with words. Include lot of detail and use your own language.

If even that doesn’t help, try to describe the situation to a certain person. Just begin your writing using salutation, for example, you can use “Dear John” and describe the situation to your best friend John as accurately as possible.

Extract Gold from a Business Book

When you come over to a business book and have a hunch that you could get a lot of value from it, try this Freewriting technique.

As you read the book, add underlining and write notations inside it. Customize the book, make it your own. Write insights and questions into the book, even if you need to write over the existing text. Don’t be stingy with your customizations.

Now, once you finish reading the book, go through it again, and write the most interesting underlined parts and notations into your computer. Then, do a 20-minute Freewriting session about these ideas and questions. This will allow you to add real personal meaning to the most important ideas in the book, and internalize the knowledge presented.

It makes no sense to be lazy here. It took you a couple of hours to read the book anyway, so why not do the 20-minute Freewriting session, to get ten times more value from the book than you would normally get?

You Are What You Focus On

There is a great example in this chapter:

Without looking up from your computer, create a mental list of all the red objects in the room. Do this now.
Now look around. How many additional red objects do you see? Before you started reading, you weren’t focused on red objects, so you’ve probably missed a lot of them in the initial list.

Now, if I tell you that I’ll pay you $1000 for a list of 100 red objects in the room, you will get really creative! Perhaps you will think “If I unscrew my telephone receiver, I see red wires. If I cut my finger, I see red blood. If I break this red bookcase into its parts, I have six red shelves.”

The objects are extremely “evasive”, even if they are very close to you. Focus is everything.
What you focus on determines how you lead your life. Therefore, you should use Freewriting to focus on things that are important for you in your life. Don’t get overwhelmed by the grind of the daily existence.

Part 3 – Going Public

When Freewriting, you must always assume that no one will see what you’ve written. It should be a strictly private matter. This is necessary so you can really let go and let the inner censor recede.

However, you still can (and should) use the fruits of your Freewriting effort for public documents – books, blogs, articles, anything. This chapter talks about the ways of doing that.

Share Your Unfinished Thoughts

Sometimes, no polishing or editing is necessary or desired. You can just take a part of your writing and send it to someone.

If you are blogger, this could work great when querying for an interest in a guest post. If the host blogger says yes to your thoughts, or gives you extra thoughts of his own, you can deliver a piece that he and his audience will be happy with. Another advantage is that the chance you will procrastinate is much lower. You can just sit down and Freewrite.

You can also create a large collage with all your ideas and thoughts about the subject, and send it to someone. This works in many situations, even when writing a proposal for a book.

It’s good to share what you are thinking and feeling, even if you are not sure about what you are thinking and feeling yourself. “Talking” document allows you to share these thoughts. Just think aloud on the paper.

You can either write a letter, or assemble a collage. Don’t forget to tell the recipient what kind of feedback you would like.

Help Others Do Their Best Thinking

When working with a client as a consultant, or when helping a friend or relative with a difficult problem, you can teach them Freewriting, and any related techniques useful in their situation. They will thank you later :-)

Notice Stories Everywhere

Stories happen only to people who can tell them. Or, I would say, to people who want to tell them.

Always keep your eyes and mind open for stories and material as you go about your day. Become a walking library of stories. Write the stories down, you never know when they will come in handy.

Build an Inventory of Thoughts

This chapter fascinates me.

If you write regularly, you will generate a huge amount of material. You can then chop the material up and divide it into separate documents. For example, you can have “Marketing” document “Childhood” document, “GUI Design” document, “Fitness”, document, etc. You can have as many documents as needed. The documents should be based on themes you most commonly write about.

The chunks should be complete thoughts, not just fragments. Even if you read these chunks 20 years from now, they should still make sense.
If you build such a library, you will have myriads of material to work with. Whenever you will be writing something, you can dive into the appropriate documents and fish for chunks to use.

You are basically stockpiling thoughts, ideas and stories in your computer. Sure, they all reside in your head in one way or another, too, but having them already written is something completely different. At any given moment, it is impossible to recall all the relevant thoughts. However, it’s easy to go through the relevant documents.

This also helps you to write better, because you will be using material that you had time to think about, not just making stuff up as you write.

Yet another benefit is that you will remember all your stories and thoughts better, even when you are not at the computer.
Another use of chunks is to use them as a thought-starter for something entirely new.

Write Your Own Rules

Many famous writers have their own rules that help them with their writing.

For example, Hemingway had a rule of never finishing the last sentence at his writing session end. He wouldn’t finish the sentence until the next day.

Another of his rules was to write 500 to 1000 words every day.

Ray Bradbury also had a lifelong habit of writing every day.

Yet another great rule is to keep the writing and editing (revising) steps separate. Generating prose is one task, making it sound good is another task. Don’t overload yourself.

It’s a good idea to give yourself a couple of rules (goals) at the start of the day, before you get overwhelmed by the daily business.

You can have rules for different parts of the process: Warm up rule, ideation rule, writing rule, etc.

Many of the exercises described in Accidental Genius can be made into rules.

Good rule enables you to write more.

The Fascination Method

This method can help you when writing a book, or preparing a speech, etc.

When writing a book, you are basically a filter. As you’ve lived your life, you’ve gained millions of experiences and thoughts that are unique to you. Your book should begin from this material.

To get to the really good stuff, create an inventory of everything that has fascinated you at any point of your life. A list of:

  • Facts
  • Insights
  • Anecdotes
  • Philosophies
  • Experiences
  • Memories
  • Surprises
  • Websites
  • Dreams
  • Myths
  • Books
  • Conversations
  • People

Literally anything that has ever fascinated you! Don’t wonder why a particular item fascinates you. Don’t worry if it has any relation to a book you want to write. Items on the fascination list have energy for you.

Take your time. Divide the writing of the list to multiple Freewriting sessions spread among a couple of days.

Once the list is done, think about the audience and what you could tell to that audience. Who might the audience be? What book demands to be written? Just brainstorm, based on the material presented to you.

Group the items from the fascination list. There will be several themes.

A book that has begun through this process will be something that:

  • Will be joy to write
  • Will be uniquely yours (one of a kind)
  • The audience will be able to use and appreciate

The main idea is that you do not look into the market first. You look into yourself first.

Freewrite Your Way to Finished Prose

There are multiple ways of using Freewriting to create finished prose (articles, blog posts, etc.)

One way is this one:

  • Do several Freewriting warm-ups
  • Do focused Freewriting about the relevant topic
  • Delete what’s not working
  • Arrange what’s left
  • Write any missing thoughts and transitions
  • Edit like mad

Also, if you have some written material that you haven’t used yet, check it out. Can you use something? (See: Build an Inventory of Thoughts)

So what do you think?

Have you ever come across Freewriting or similar techniques before?

Are you going to try this?

Do you think on paper?

Remember any situation when Freewriting or thinking on paper has helped you greatly?

I personally regularly think on paper and the results are wonderful. I use my own software Swift To-Do List to organize my writing (notes) in a nice tree structure.

Also, I’ve recently decided to use Freewriting to write a book, and I’m really excited about it. I’m pretty sure that Freewriting will work really well for me in this case – I plan to use The Fascination Method.

PS: Go get the book.

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  • Dale

    Good article. I just tried it in the middle of reading. I like it. My other exposure to this idea was a book by Christine Rainer called, The New Diary. She has a lot more ideas about how to access your freewriting spirit. Thanks.

  • http://elimisteve.posterous.com Steve Phillips

    On January 3, 2005, shortly after entering college, I began writing every day. I started with brainstorming and explaining what was going through my mind (sometimes explicitly intended for my future self), but quickly turned to Philosophy and clarifying my own thoughts of all kinds. As an undergrad I focused on my own philosophical writings almost exclusively, which culminated in the creation of Axiomatic Philosophy, a new philosophical methodology meant to replace Analytic as the dominant paradigm.

    Axiomatic Philosophy aims to place Philosophy on the same sort of foundation as mathematics — namely logic and well-defined terminology — rather than human intuition (as is currently the case). The main difference is that said terminology is philosophical rather than mathematical. There are many other complementary techniques, such as describing thought experiments programmatically as to eliminate weasel word-laden English and make literally calculating answers possible via constraint programming, to give but one example. All of this would be written in PHILL — Philosophy Language — currently a subset of Python. Eventually using Haskell would be very interesting, which is at once highly impractical (because Haskell is so inconvenient — imagine your Philosophy professor trying to learn it to keep up with the times!) and highly practical (its functional purity allows for proofs, unlike in object-oriented programming).

    I know it’s “crazy.” I’m OK with that.

    I estimate that roughly 1/2 of my writings are in digital form; the rest, in various paper notebooks. According to wc (a command line utility — “wc” for “word count”), my digital writings currently consist of 392,392 words — over 1000 pages. In my philosophical prime I often wrote 5-10 pages daily, but significantly less these days (and much more programming).

    To “Accidental Genius” I credit much if this prolific-ness. Without so much writing, these thoughts would never have crystallized, and AxP would not exist. Thank you, Mark Levy.

    –Steve Phillips
    Co-founder of Santa Barbara Hackerspace

  • http://www.modelmakingcreatives.co.uk Jason

    This way of thinking can also help you come up with fresh ideas for most any kind of art or music. Brilliant. I use many of these techniques when making a prototype for any of my projects.

  • http://peterjlu.com Peter

    The freewriting spirit described here is very, very useful — especially the points on “building an inventory of thoughts” as well as “noticing things everywhere” — but what’s AS IMPORTANT (or more important) is the ability to create a journal / blog that you’re invested in and held accountable for.

    A blog that you share with your friends is a great way to hold yourself accountable, and to invest great ideas in. I’ve joined a street fundraising team to get over my fear of rejection and learned how to text girls better as a result of starting my blog,

    http://www.peterjlu.com/2011/07/how-i-text-like-absolute-baller-kind-of.html

    So, remember — write the way you think, but also make sure to give yourself the motivation to write in the first place.

  • Bengt Carlström

    As an extension to this book I would like to recommend “Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware”, by Andy Hunt (http://pragprog.com/book/ahptl/pragmatic-thinking-and-learning).

    /Ben

  • sharjeel

    i have tried http://www.750words.com for free writing & it nails the objective

  • http://www.domainnoob.com John Humphrey

    Parts of this, especially Hold a Paper Conversation, remind me of Carl Jung’s Active Imagination, which basically posits a similar technique, but with the objective of outing one’s Archetypes. I’ve had a lot of fun with this but wanted to suggest that one not be surprised at the wild collection of characters that might wish to have a word with you.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_imagination

  • WulfCry

    I’ve been free writing for years dirty sloppy just a train of thoughts great post about the book I have not read it but surely give it a try about this subject.

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  • http://artur.ejsmont.org/blog/ Ejsmont

    really cool post :) thanks for summarizing.

    art

  • http://billpolmwatercolor.wordpress.com/2011/07/ Bill Polm

    Thanks Jiri,
    Thanks for spending the time to share your summary of this key book.
    I’m going to get it.
    I am beginning to do a re-write of my novel this am, and the emphasis on the right brain aspect of writing was timely!
    Regards

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  • Mr Thinker

    I love secret no. 6 but unfortunately I’m quite perplexed by secret no. 1. It’s a different take on the matter of acquiring an accidental genius. But see here for how to think.

  • http://www.twitter.com/bennesvig Ben Nesvig

    Great summary. Currently listening to the audiobook.