The Ideas Man

What makes him memorable is the unbridled, effervescent energy that follows in the wake of his takeoff. The pajamas also help.

“I’ve always been a huge notebook guy and just wrote down thoughts whenever they came to me,” Ian H. McClanan ’20 explains as he leans forward in his recliner, a scattered arc of notebooks before him. “And then I came up with the idea of all ideas, which is make a video channel where I literally talk about ideas.”

This is how he starts, with notebooks and ideas. Then he goes into his process, his philosophy, and the rest of his life, and there is so much he says at every moment that it becomes easy to understand why he writes everything down. Yet when he talks, you get the sense he cares about the things he says.

Which helps explain why McClanan hosts a YouTube and Facebook video channel, Ideas and Ian. His topic of choice is, as you might guess, ideas, and the ideas he covers range from authenticity to virtual reality to water bottle flipping. Each video begins with McClanan in his bed, staring excitedly into the camera. His wire rimmed glasses and surfer hair are recognizable enough, but what makes him memorable is the unbridled, effervescent energy that follows in the wake of his takeoff. The pajamas also help.

McClanan grew up in Portland, Ore., where he says he was something of a miniature version of his current frenetic self. “I've just always found it fun to be over the top and go over the top with different stuff,” he says. Once, in elementary school, he was assigned a project: Make an eight-inch high totem pole. McClanan’s totem pole was five feet tall and paper-mache, which tells you a lot about how he approaches things.

For McClanan, video making is an exercise in chaos control. His pre-production process always begins the same way—with hype. “I’m playing this loud music and I’m dancing around in my room, I’m getting hyped, I’m like ‘come on, here we go! Here we go!’” he says. “And then I get hyped and I walk in there with my PJs on—I do all my videos in my PJs—and I just say all this stuff really energetically and I mess up so much!”

He says that his videos, few of which are longer than three minutes, usually take around an hour to film. And although he starts off with a script, the ideas quickly take over, and by the end of the process, he “just sort of say[s] the whole thing.”

But where do the ideas come from? McClanan, brandishing one of his custom-patterned notebooks (available for $15 on his website), says he writes down notes from his everyday life—from dining hall conversations to classes.

Ian H. McClanan ’20 does a trick on his skateboard.

“These videos are the product of me reflecting on some of these conversations to see how I actually feel about it,” he says. “Because if I don’t, usually those conversations just slip and go away. But to write them down is a great process of rethinking and actually coming to a consistent personal philosophy.”

McClanan isn’t the first Harvard student to have ideas—that list is rather long, and includes people like Jared C. Kushner ’03, Albert A. Gore ’69, and William S. Burroughs ’36. But McClanan’s awareness that everyday interactions are ephemeral is not something you hear very often.

His most valuable possession, consequently, is the stack of notebooks he keeps in a corner of his room. He flips through one of them, revealing pages pockmarked with pen scribbles and random notes. There are jottings from Peru last summer, and then, a few flips later, a song. The notebooks are, in some way, a crystallization of the Ian McClanan Way of Life, or the philosophy that we should actively record our experiences and share them.

“The notebooks of my past are some of my most valuable possessions, and that's because they totally capture the types of things I was thinking at different times in my life,” he says. “If this place were burning down, these are some of the first ones I’d grab. There's nothing that has more character than one of these notebooks.”

Some of McClanan’s ideas seem like they already exist, like the campfire songbook. When I tell him this, he clarifies that his songbook would be “smaller and more indestructible.” He gestures towards one of the notebooks before him, which reminds me this is a recurring theme.

Others form a fresh take on new trends. McClanan has taken the idea of mobile tiny homes and AirBnB to their natural conclusion: a “tiny home moving hotel.” “I really love the idea of having a sick tiny home that's mobile so then I could be sort of semi-nomadic about where I’m living,” McClanan says, describing something akin to the already invented RV. “I think that'd be sick!”

McClanan has so many ideas, in fact, that when I ask him how he would escape Antarctica with only a silent harmonica and a non-circular clock, two of the many ideas he lists on his website, it takes him a few moments to remember what I’m talking about. Then, he bursts out into laughter.

“Damn. I don't really know. Maybe I would trace back the time and close my eyes and forget where I was,” he says. “Let’s go back to that one.”

But after this brief break, the conversation picks up again, as things always seem to do around McClanan. We never end up getting back to it.

—Magazine writer Luke W. Xu can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @duke_of_luke_.