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Articles tagged “ideas”
All of my good ideas are battles
1,500 plastic army men, painted red and placed in elegant typography on a window front in NYC from Adam Katz
Often the single thing that sets good ideas apart from bad ones is simply someone believing in the former.
When I first set out to start a blog about creativity – solely about creativity – the common response was: “Oh.” It took a lot of prodding to convince anyone that a blog on such a singular topic could go anywhere.
Even today, some six years after I started writing here, there are still those who aren’t so sure about the idea. Despite the blog having been mentioned on the likes of Lifehacker, Adobe’s blog, 99u, and others.
Good ideas are not adopted automatically. But I’d wager that it’s the passion of the originator that makes adopting good ideas easier to identify to those who otherwise might see the idea as bad. Of course, this is only true as long as the idea isn’t blatantly silly, impossible, or otherwise downright harmful.
The touchscreen is a beautiful example of this point.
That screen you likely use on your phone or iPad, the same type of technology powers ATMs, car navigation systems, and retail systems. But, despite having the first working concept of a touchscreen having been invented well over 36 years ago, the technology wasn’t globally viewed as a good idea until sometime in the last six years!
First experiments of a touchscreen technology began way back in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, the first production concept of a touchscreen was filed as a patent by the inventor Samuel Hurst. It wasn’t until around 2007, when Apple released the iPhone, that touch screens became a mainstay staple in households around the world.
Companies like General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, and other giants had the technology for years, decades even, and they couldn’t make it seem like a good idea to consumers.
It took Apple’s swooning, multi-million fanbase of dedicated Mac and iPod owners to form the tipping point of touchscreen technology as a good idea.
Post-it notes, eBay, Redbox, and electricity are other examples of ideas that seemed bad before their time. Most were violently criticized before someone had the passion and energy to make the ideas and, fortunately for us, turn them into glaring successes.
Paul Graham seems a lot of bad ideas. He sees a lot of good ones too: he works as an investor behind one of the largest and most well-known angel companies in the world, Y Combinator. Paul has helped guide businesses and entrepreneurs on how to identify ideas worth pursuing. And his track record is pretty solid, supporting and guiding companies like Airbnb, Justin.tv, Dropbox, Wufoo, Reddit, and others. One of Paul’s golden nuggets of wisdom for idea-seekers:
“If a good idea were obviously good, someone else would already have done it. ”
Good ideas are commonly bad ideas that someone has taken the time and effort to find the good in. That’s not always the case, of course not, but often the only thing separating a good idea from a bad one is finding the places where both definitions overlap, then putting in the time to prove it.
To quote computer pioneer Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”
“If you want to be where you can come up with creative ideas, go there.”
Try this experiment with a friend or co-worker. It should only take five or so minutes to get the point across.
Tell them that they have just traveled back in time 100 years. How they did it is not in question here. They’ve been tasked with telling you – a historically famous painter or inventor or something – about something from the present time, like the iPhone, or the Internet, eBooks, taking educational courses online, iMAX, or the McRib sandwich.
They can pick which item they’re describing or you can come up with it together, the only requirements are that it has to be a fairly recent technology or concept from the current year (2013 as of this writing) and they have to try their best to describe it to you so that you completely understand it.
The problem, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that nearly any technology or concept we have today that is fairly new simply couldn’t have existed 100 years ago. It was impossible.
Maybe your friend can successfully describe the thing to you, but to re-create it would be absolutely impossible.
Take the iPhone for example. In order for an iPhone to exist you need a lot of adjacent technologies and ideas to also exist. Touch screen technology, incredibly small batteries, durable glass cut to the perfect shape, and a thousand other small inventions that didn’t exist 100 years ago. Then, for almost each of those objects you’d need a dozen other technologies to exist as well.
The concept is beautifully described by Kevin Kelly in his article: Bootstrapping the Industrial Age, where he describes the process of creating a single web page today:
A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.
So what’s this have to do with creativity and ideation?
The reason so many good ideas come about is not because the person who came up with them was generally more intelligent or held otherworldly insights. No, the reason is simply known as the Adjacent Possible.
Stuart Kauffman originally coined the term to describe nature’s natural process of ordered evolution.
The idea goes well beyond organic chemistry though, as you can see by the experiment that started off this article.
Good ideas – really grand ideas, for whatever it is your passion is – do not come from thin air. They come from the constant combinatorial editing writers and curators do, they come from the room full of props and garbaged projects of an artist, and they come from a room full of interesting people all talking about the (small) interesting things they are doing.
To have good ideas is to surround yourself with possibilities, then experimenting to see which of those ideas can produce a new, functional one.
Photo by Moyan Brenn.
We want to believe that creativity is regularly awe-inspiring. It’s not though.
As I was sitting in a bookstore the other day I noticed a woman commenting on a feature story of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. She was speaking to her friend when she said: “I’m amazed at how creative this guy is, look at what he’s done with Amazon! I wish I could be half that creative.”
But what Bezos has done with Amazon isn’t all that creative to those who work with him or – I’d wager – even to himself.
For Bezos and his employees, every new thing that comes along from the company (the Amazon Kindle, for example) is just another part of their process, something they’ve been working towards for at least a little while. By the time you or I hear about anything they’ve done, the creative spark has died out long ago, the “wow” factor has diminished.
Day-in and day-out the things the people at Amazon do are likely the same, but to you and I everything that comes out of their doors is innovative, creative, awe-inspiring.
What looks remarkably creative to you may not be creative to me.
What appears as a new art style to us is just another day in the studio for the artist. The same can be said for nearly any other idea that makes it to market or into a gallery or mentioned on Tumblr.
If you want to really have creative ideas then you can’t look at what’s being done and be all that moved.
The things those you look up to (or hear about in the news or read in magazines) are great, undoubtedly, but it’s what you come up with next that matters. And, for you at least, what comes next isn’t going to be something you read about or see on Reddit.
What comes next – where creativity lies – is going to be, as Seth Godin puts it, at the edges of everything else.
Original illustration via Vicent Spain.
Those that get past creative blocks often aren’t the ones who necessarily have the capacity for more creativity. Nor are they consistently the ones with the right tools or more resources.
No, those that excel when it comes to ideation, to getting past the creative block, who find solutions that work, are typically the people who focus on the thing that matters most.
It’s easy to get consumed with what we believe is the “best” thing. The best thing requires more tools, more ideas, more input, and ultimately more risk. But the best thing isn’t always the thing that matters, the thing that will move the needle.
In our efforts to find the solution that wows us we overlook the one that actually matters.
Fortunately it’s easy to shift away from the best thing and re-focus on the right thing by looking at the impact each is expected to have. Taking the few extra minutes to evaluate your path can make all the difference in not only how you come up with ideas, but the quality of them as well.
If you find yourself stuck often, or moving slowly, unable to come up with enough of what feels like the right ideas, first take a step back and consider the fact that you might be searching for the best thing rather than the thing that really matters.
The two aren’t always exclusive, but more often than not one distracts from the other.