Good Ideas and Great Ideas
The world is full of ideas, but very few good ones. As an old saying goes, “ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got one and they’re usually full of shit.” They are, however, important.
Great ones can change the world. Ideas, if we nurture them, can become dreams, transform the mundane into the sublime and poverty into prosperity. Life would be exceedingly boring without ideas.
Yet it’s not enough to have a a flash of insight or a brainstorm. A worthy idea needs to be nurtured and developed, rethought and reworked, often thrown away and picked back up again. There’s a substantive difference between a passing fancy and groundbreaking concept. It is our approach to ideas that makes that difference.
A Good Idea has a Purpose
Our brains are always at work, even while we’re sleeping. Our senses feed into our neurons that interface with memories of old experiences, which interact with other neurons doing the same thing. When a new connection between neurons is made, we have an idea. It happens all the time.
Ideas begin to have force, however, when they are put toward some purpose. Einstein had time and space, which could not be adequately explained by Newton. Gandhi had the British. Tim Berners-Lee wanted to organize information at a physics lab. You get the idea.
Good ideas, in other words, solve a problem. Important ideas solve really tough problems and that takes time. Usually we hear about dramatic flashes of inspiration, but the truth is usually vastly different. They start with a seed and germinate for a while. Steven Johnson, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, calls this the “Long Hunch.”
A Good Idea is Logical, and Verifiable
We often have flashes. These are not ideas themselves, but with some work and some luck, they can become an idea. Just because something occurs to you while you’re driving in the car, waiting in the checkout line or sitting in the bathroom doesn’t make it true or important.
For an idea to be workable, it must have internally consistent premises that lead to a conclusion. That doesn’t mean that you always have to think about it that way, excessive logic can kill the spirit of an idea, but at some point you should be able to trace your way back.
Moreover, premises need to be logically verifiable. You might feel, for instance, that “traditional media is crap,” or that “business is in decline” but those are far too general to be verifiable statements. As Wittgenstein pointed out, they don’t correspond to a specific “state of affairs” and therefore can’t be confirmed.
You could, of course, firm up such notions by saying specific things like that TV viewership has declined over the last decade (you’d be wrong) or that return on assets is falling (you’d be irrelevant), but at least you would be contributing to a serious discussion, not simply conjecturing wildly.
A Good Idea is Falsifiable
Karl Popper stressed that, for all of its charms, there is a problem with verifiability: we can only verify what happened in the past. I can know that I had a tuna fish sandwich last week, but that’s no guarantee that I’ll have one next week.
That’s why it’s important for our ideas to be testable, so that we know if at some point we’ve gone off course, or that we missed something or that the facts on the ground simply changed. If not, bad ideas can live long enough to cause real damage, like the kind that happened at Enron. Popper called this his falsification principle.
George Soros, who has the dual distinction of being both a former student of Popper and a billionaire, said “I’m only rich because I know when I’m wrong… I basically have survived by recognizing my mistakes.”
You can’t believe everything you think.
A Good Idea is Parsimonious
When we get an idea, our first impulse is to make it bigger by adding to it. We put a few more slides in the PowerPoint deck, a few more words into the sentence, a few more sentences to the paragraph and on and on it goes. As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”
Yet a good idea explains the maximum amount of variables in the minimum number of statements. We are more likely to improve them by subtraction than addition, by honing them down rather by building onto them. This particular idea is called the principle of parsimony and it has been around since the Middle Ages.
So it’s not a coincidence that some of the biggest ideas have come in small packages. Watson and Crick’s original paper announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA was barely two pages long and when Watt’s and Strogatz published their article that launched modern network theory it was even shorter.
A Good Idea Interfaces with Other Ideas
I read a lot of books; some very good, others less so. One thing I’ve learned from reading so much is that whenever the author begins by saying that his or her idea makes all other ideas obsolete I can duly expect a load of bullshit to follow.
Good ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. The best ones combine with other ideas, past and future, to increase their power. As I noted in an earlier post, technology evolves through combinations, none can stand on their own, but thrive in ecosystems.
Shopping malls blossom in suburbs which need cars that won’t get very far without gas stations. The Web was made possible by the Internet which needed computers (not to mention a well-funded military) to bring it to fruition. Gregor Mendel’s discovery of genetics lay fallow for 50 years before Darwin’s ideas about evolution gave it new life.
Of course, ideas are often constraints. When John von Neumann dreamed up the computer architecture which drives our modern ideas he soon realized he had a better idea. Nonetheless, we’re stuck with the original one, for better or worse.
When people’s ideas don’t interface well with others they are often said to be “ahead of their time” and they often die alone and forgotten.
A Great Idea Inspires
How often do people tell us that they have a great idea, but that “nobody gets it?” It’s a classic case of blaming the victim.
A great idea inspires others to push it even further than the originator ever imagined. Max Planck’s idea about blackbody radiation inspired Einstein’s idea about light quanta which inspired others to pioneer the field of quantum mechanics from which we get lasers and i-Pods.
Interestingly, both Einstein and Planck were skeptical of the revolutions they spawned. That’s not unusual. Truly important concepts take on a life of their own, sometimes delighting and sometimes horrifying their originators. They defy ownership and enter the public domain.
Good ideas, if they are to become great, must be set free.