In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg had the inspiration to create movable type that could be slotted into the printing presses of the day. His idea gave birth to mass media and planted the seeds of an intellectual revolution. In 1914 it dawned on Henry Ford that automobiles could be more efficiently produced on an assembly line. Soon many more people could afford a car.

We all know great ideas can change the world -- and an individual life -- which is why so many people are out there searching for game-changing ideas. A whole industry has sprouted up to support them, offering courses to boost your creativity, advice for better brainstorming, or places to go hunting for inspiration

But what if much of this hunting for great ideas is actually wasted effort? What if most of the time the trouble isn't that you need to find a new idea, but instead that you need to recognize the good ideas you've already come up with? 

How many good ideas are you currently wasting? 

That was the fascinating contention of Four Thousand Weeks author Oliver Burkeman in his Imperfectionist newsletter recently. Burkeman, a much-admired contrarian thinker on topics around personal productivity and success, argues that we should focus less on hunting for new ideas outside ourselves and more on capturing the good ideas we already have but fail to exploit. 

It's a lesson Burkeman learned in his previous role as the author of a weekly magazine column. "The web is crammed with advice on generating ideas, but most of it leaves me cold, because it assumes you start with zero ideas, then need to conjure some good ones into existence," he writes, but "it doesn't work like that, at least for me. Instead it's a matter of recognizing that a thought you've already had actually is a good idea."  

"It would suddenly dawn on me that a conversation I'd had in a pub the other week, a quotation I'd been pondering for days, or some productivity trick I'd been using for so long it had become second nature to me, would make a great column. It had been staring me in the face. I hadn't forgotten about it; I'd just failed to see that it constituted a good idea," he continues. 

In this vision, humans are naturally creative creatures. Our minds buzz with possibilities, what-ifs, and unexpected collisions all the time. The limiting factor isn't that we don't have ideas. It's that we fail to appreciate and act on them. Or as Spanx founder Sara Blakely put it in her entrepreneurship Masterclass, "Every person in their life has had a million-dollar idea. Whether or not you take action is what makes the difference."

Rather than focus your energies on searching for a-ha moments, Burkeman urges readers to be diligent about capturing the ideas you already have. "Keep an ever-expanding list of random thoughts, adding to it indiscriminately, never holding back because an idea seemed mediocre, stupid, or derivative. (Carry something to write on wherever you go!)," he recommends. 

Will many of these jottings be useless? Of course. But if you go back to this list whenever you need inspiration, Burkeman insists you will discover diamonds in the rough. 

"When I needed an idea, I'd peruse the list, and sure enough, most of the entries would still seem mediocre, stupid, or derivative. But for mysterious reasons, one or two entries -- entries that might have sat there looking lifeless for months or years -- would suddenly feel ripe, full of life, ready to be used. I still have no idea why this happens. But it does," he recalls. 

An easy win

Burkeman's idea appeals to me for a handful of interrelated reasons. First, it's actionable. Searching for ideas somewhere out there can be vague and overwhelming. If you don't know what you're looking for or where, it's easy to end up sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That's rarely a fun or efficient use of time. Buying a notebook or making better use of the notes function on your phone, on the other hand, is the kind of small practical action that soothes anxiety

Second, Burkeman's suggestion sends the message that creativity isn't a special, rarefied gift bestowed on only a few of us. Just like Blakely insisting that everyone has had a million-dollar idea, Burkeman's call to capture the ideas you already have reminds us that, in the words of fellow author Elizabeth Gilbert, if you're alive, you're creative

We might not all come up with movable type or the assembly line, but you probably have a whole lot more good ideas that you realize. Capturing and acting on more of them is an easy win.