Why Good Ideas Are Overrated
In the areas of art and entrepreneurship, much has been written about how to find good ideas.
Countless books and articles have attempted to ask and answer questions like: What is a good idea? How do I hunt one down? What the heck do I do if I manage to capture one of these elusive creatures.
On its face this seems like a noble pursuit: Don’t all successful business, blogs, and creative projects begin with a good idea?
While this isn’t necessarily false, it’s an incomplete and unhelpful way to assess ideas. Early in a project it is near impossible to distinguish between a good and bad idea — much less anticipate which one will blossom into something fruitful.
That is why I propose a new criterion for evaluating your ideas. Instead of looking for a “good idea” search for an idea that excites you.
An exciting idea is one you can’t stop thinking about. It remains in your head when you wake up and go to bed.
An exciting idea is one that ignites rather than zaps your energy. You lose track of time when working on it.
An exciting idea is one you’ll want to stick with for the long haul. It can withstand the highs and lows of the creative process.
To get a better understanding of why we should seek exciting ideas, let’s start with a simple fact.
What An Idea Really Is…
An idea is not a tangible thing.
This sounds obvious, but it bears mentioning. An idea is the source from which something tangible (i.e. book, play, product) can arise, but it is not the thing itself.
Pixar Director Pete Docter uses a seed metaphor to describe this. Like seeds, your ideas have the potential to sprout leaves and grow into something tall and mighty, but you need to water and care for them for this to happen.
Simply having an idea, even a “good idea”, is not enough. You must take the proper steps to mold it into something exciting. Ideation and execution are separate activities.
JK Rowling was likely not the first person to have the idea of writing a novel about a school for witches and wizards, but she was the one who turned that idea into Harry Potter.
Steve Jobs and Apple were likely not the first to have the idea of storing your music collection on your cell phone, but they were the ones to launch the iPhone.
What’s So Bad About Good Ideas?
If an idea is merely the blueprint for something concrete, it makes little sense to use the same standards of judgement for the two. You wouldn’t assess a tree by the seed it began as.
When starting out, you simply have no clue what an idea will grow into. Thus, it’s not a matter of an idea being good or bad, it is whether you can turn the idea into something good.
In the wrong hands, a great sounding idea can turn into a disaster. Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved animated television series of all time, adapting it into a live-action movie seemed like a fantastic idea. However, the film turned into a box office bomb reviled by fans of the show.
The opposite is also true. With the proper care, an idea that seems absurd can turn into something magnificent. If someone suggested the idea of making a hip hop themed musical about an obscure founding father, you might laugh them out of the room. But Lin Manuel Miranda transformed this “bad” idea into the Broadway hit Hamilton.
Why An Idea That Excites?
Willing an idea into existence is no small feat. It requires months, often years, of strenuous work. You’ll likely face doubts from both yourself and others. At many points you’ll be tempted to quit — in fact, most people do.
We all have limited time. Limited focus. And limited energy. Completing a new project will exhaust these resources. The only way you’ll have the stamina and determination to get to the finish line is by working with an idea you’re excited about.
If the idea you’re excited about has promise, you stand a better chance of realizing its potential. If the idea you’re excited about is odd or unconventional (think Hamilton), your enthusiasm will allow you to make the tweaks necessary to transform it into something worthwhile.
This is why excitement is the best frame to look at ideas. It acknowledges the tough work that goes into completing a project. It accepts we can’t know how something will turn out until we start working. And it gives us a simple principle to get started: does this idea excite me or not?
How Do I Know If An Idea Excites Me?
This is a tough question, and one only you can answer. To guide you, I want to share the criteria author Seth Godin uses to decide what project to focus on:
“What would you do if you knew you would fail?”
For our purpose, we can rephrase it as:
“What idea would you work on even if it failed?”
No one can predict how people will react when you release your idea in the wild. Creators of all types admit being surprised by which of their ideas take off and which flop. Steal Like An Artist author Austin Kleon says:
“I’ve written tweets — mind farts! — that have turned into blog posts which became book chapters.”
This uncertainty scares some off, but I say lean into it. By its nature, creative work is tough and messy. Your path will be crooked, and any semblance of success is never guaranteed. The only way to weather the storm is to work on ideas that excite you. The ones you have an insatiable urge to explore, and would pursue no matter if they failed or succeeded.
A good idea is simply one you enjoy working on. Focus on this principle first, and set aside any value judgements until later in process.