I think when someone says they want to do something but then follows up with, “…but I don’t have any ideas,” what they actually mean is that they don’t think they have any great ideas.
If you could look inside their head, you’d probably see hundreds or even thousands of ideas waiting for a chance to come alive.
If you don’t think you have any ideas, I’d challenge you to look again. I’d bet you have quite a few of them. What’s usually missing is a system to decide which ones are any good.
I also think that most people have some very “Made in Hollywood” conceptions about what makes an idea truly great.
The romanticized notions that so many people have about how brilliant ideas are conceived are keeping them from unleashing their own. They keep trying to come to the right answer using the wrong equation. “You can’t get there from here.”
Truth is, the best ideas don’t come all at once. They aren’t accepted with open arms. And they never, and I mean never, come without high stakes.
It’s typical to think that there’s a big difference between a great idea and a terrible one, but actually the difference is only in how an idea is approached. Whether it’s an awful or a brilliant one has a lot more to do with you than it does the idea.
That said, here are some questions you can ask yourself any time you’re wondering if you have a great idea worth pursuing. It doesn’t actually matter what the idea is. You can take literally any idea and turn it into a great one by answering a few really important questions.
1) Did it come in a fit of brilliance?
Lots of good ideas come to me in a fit of brilliance. Even more “okay” ones do. Never, though, have any of my very best ideas come to me all at once in anything resembling a stroke of genius.
I tend to agree with my favorite cartoonist, Hugh Macleod, when he says that’s just not how great ideas work.
The best ideas you’ll ever have in your life will not strike you all at once. They will not come pre-packaged and ready for you to unleash as if by some divine intervention.
Truly great ideas churn in the back of your mind, slowly moving forward and quietly begging for attention until you just can’t take the damn voices anymore, so you start doing it.
Great ideas don’t come with flash. They don’t need it. Flash is a survival tactic for bad ideas.
2) Does everyone love it?
You can pretty much rest assured that if every person you meet enthusiastically tells you that you have the greatest idea they’ve ever heard, your idea is terrible.
Well, perhaps it’s not the worst one you’ve ever had, but your best ideas will not come with such approval. Great ideas are controversial and always test the limits, the morals, and the beliefs of the people they affect.
Those are three things that nobody enjoys having tested, so if every Tom, Dick, and Sally on the block is ready to sign up, it might be best to go back to the drawing board if you’re looking for your best idea.
Great ideas don’t ask for permission. They don’t need that either.
3) Is it incredibly helpful to a small group of people?
There’s no way to make your idea useful to everybody on the planet and if it relies on that to work, it’s doomed from the start.
On the other hand, if you can point to a small group of people that your idea will be insanely helpful to, you might be onto something. Of course, that means your plan will be basically useless to most of the world’s population, but so it goes.
Don’t worry, if you really do have a great idea, it will get watered down over time without any effort from you.
Start tiny. Start fiercely. Apple started as a couple of computer nerds trying to impress their friends. Nike was only started to make the University of Oregon track team faster.
Great ideas don’t need a huge audience to succeed. They latch onto a very small one and spread like a virus.
4) Are you qualified to do it?
Let’s hope not. Some of the best ideas ever have been ruined by people who were too “qualified” to make them work.
Does that mean you shouldn’t have some experience with what you want to do? No, don’t be silly. But it does mean you shouldn’t rely on experience to carry you through the whole process of bringing it to life.
Great ideas break the mold. They change the rules every time. They’re experiments. Qualifications tell you how something should be done and give you instructions for how to repeat it. Qualifications and great ideas are incompatible.
If you want to take a good idea and make it great, get ready to forget what you know and start exploring new territory.
5) Does it help people or does it change them?
Good ideas help people. Great ideas change them. The airplane was a good idea. It helped businessmen get to meetings faster and easier. The Internet was a great idea. It made the meeting possible without ever leaving home.
Airplanes made business faster. The internet fundamentally changed how business worked.
What does your idea do? Does it just make things faster and easier for people or does it change how people actually interact in the process? Great ideas do both.
Image by Cayusa