There was an interview with Tom Waits on the radio last week and I heard him say something that got me thinking.

I like hearing things incorrectly. I think that’s how I get a lot of ideas is by mishearing something.

It happens to me all the time.  It could be when I am half-listening to a lecture or catching a little snippet of a conversation by passersby.  It can even happen when I am listening to an interview on the radio.

There are good reasons why mishearing is a great source of new ideas.

  1. If you hear something already put together, you are prone to give it credence.  Ever notice how someone tells you about something surprising and right away you understand why its true?  Sometimes even before they are done talking?  The kickstarting effect of credence is a valuable scarce resource that is often wasted on the actually true.  Mishearing tricks you into believing something that is probably not true and sets your brain in motion to find something true in it.
  2. Mishearing isn’t random: your brain does its best to make sense of whatever comes in.  Think of the mishearing as some noise coming in and the brain assembling into something useful.
  3. It’s not just noise that comes in.  You are mishearing something that originally made sense.  So most of the parts fit together in some way already.  The mishearing will just turn it around, extend it, or apply it to something new.

So how do you make it happen?  Tom Waits:

I like turning on two radios at the same time and listening to them.