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.