A Simple Way To Have A Good Idea

by , Sep 28, 2012, 5:32 AM
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I cannot begin to tell you the number of bad ideas I have had.

When I first started receiving an allowance, at the age of 10 or so, I had grand intentions for my weekly five dollars. Surely, I thought, I can use this to pay rent on an apartment, which I can then use to house and care for homeless animals. Every week, I scoured the real estate section of the New York Times magazine, looking for the right property. Finally, I saw it: a big house, out in the country, for sale. I couldn’t believe my luck; the price tag was a mere $2,700.

I showed it to my mom, who said, “Call them. And if that’s actually the price, buy it.”

I called. “Typo,” a voice said gruffly, and hung up. Hopes dashed.

I switched tack. Turns out selling books on the sidewalk in front of our building was a much more surefire way to generate an income. The beauty of this scheme was that I never actually paid for the books, just took them off the shelves at home. One of them was a book by John Lennon, which he had given to my mother when he took one of her cooking classes. I sold it for 50 cents. “Thank God he hadn’t signed it,” was all she said.

In college, one of our freshman requirements was a course in entrepreneurship in which we were required to start an actual business. I figured, college boys being college boys, a laundry was a sure bet. My marketing ploy was a sure bet, too: we’ll do ALL your laundry for $5! As much as you can bring! I will never forget the sight of one of my classmates, trudging up the drive with the knotted ends of a king-sized comforter cover over his shoulder, dragging a king-sized comforter cover’s worth of clothes behind him. It probably cost us $60 in quarters to do his laundry.

My preference is to focus on these entrepreneurial debacles from long ago, as they give me a bit of distance from which to safely and gently laugh at the foibles of my innocent youth. But the truth is, I have had bad idea after bad idea. And I have become convinced, as so many before me, that the only way to have a good idea is to have lots of bad ones. Ideas are a volume game.

At our TEDxEQChCh event a few weeks ago, artist Kiel Johnson said that when he doesn’t know what to draw he just gets busy, ‘cause he’s a firm believer that a good idea only comes when he’s working on a bad one.

But there’s another secret about ideas, good and bad, and it is this: they are only good or bad in retrospect. Another one of our speakers, Ryan Reynolds, told the story of a library he and some friends set up on an empty site in Christchurch, New Zealand, made up of a rescued industrial fridge, a few paving stones, and a sign that said, “Take a book, leave a book.” 14 months on, the fridge library is still going strong, prompting some introspection. “If we’d set out, at the start, to make a fridge that would have lasted for two years, certainly we would have found, or maybe built, a stronger structure. It would have cost more, we might have needed building consents, designers, engineering… it might have been too daunting. And we still wouldn’t have known if it was a good idea until we tried it.”

So here’s how to have a good idea: Have lots of bad ones. Realize you can only know a good idea in retrospect. And get busy.

It’s simple. But it sure ain’t easy.

3 comments on "A Simple Way To Have A Good Idea".

  1. Rick Monihan from None
    commented on: September 28, 2012 at 5:47 p.m.
    I believe Edison said "I never failed. I just found 10,000 ways that didn't work." I could be a bad attribution, but the sentiment is accurate. I'm fond of telling my boys "no matter what you're doing, there may always be a better way to do it, so never turn down a suggestion. You never know where the next good idea will come from." In addition I remind them that Gretzky said you miss every shot you don't take. Sure, these are all cliches, they don't inform a broader discussion, but they do one thing: They point out you have to try things to get to a solution. When I entered college I was a Physics major. People asked if I wanted to do Theoretical or Experimental Physics. I didn't understand the difference. I later learned (after I changed majors) that the glory goes to the Theoreticians, because it's the guys doing the experiments who prove the Theoreticians were right or wrong. But those doing the experiments are usually anonymous. Why? Because they are basically the statisticians recording the shots that Gretzky was taking. Sometimes they'd be wrong, and they still got the glory. Because they were out there doing what they do all the time, which is what you have to do to finally get that one idea that makes the 10,000 other wrong ones worthwhile.
  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited
    commented on: September 28, 2012 at 6:58 p.m.
    Kaila, you are super !
  3. Ngoc T from Iowa
    commented on: October 3, 2012 at 5:42 p.m.
    Thank you, Kaila, thank you for another beautifully written post.

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