Many of us are lucky enough to work in a field where we don’t have to pick up heavy boxes and load them onto trucks for a living. We aren’t plowing fields, we aren’t forging tools out of steel, we aren’t digging ditches. Instead we use our minds and emotions to bring new ideas into the world and build relationships between people.
In many respects, this is a good thing. We don’t end our days with painful shoulders, knees and lower backs. Our hands aren’t cursed with callouses, and for the most part, we rarely break a sweat.
However, working with the mind can introduce its own set of problems. Add in emotions and you’ve got a twist that physical labour rarely needs to contend with.
The farmer has no emotional attachment to a crop that doesn’t grow; that would be a waste of precious space. The swordsmith doesn’t hang onto flawed metal for the sake of preserving art; that would be dangerous. Yet those of us who work with our minds routinely behave recklessly and take great risks because of it. We fall in love with our ideas.
The dangerous allure of ideas
Don’t get me wrong – ideas are wonderful and necessary. The good ones are great and can truly change the world. But not every idea is great.
It’s the ideas that rank as mediocre, average or just plain awful that can break you.
Chasing kites in trees
In a lot of ways, ideas are like kites. You take a bit of time to get them set up, and then you have to set them free. The great ones fly perfectly. They soar and dance in perfect technicolor.
The mediocre ones take some time to get altitude, tending to fly into the ground a few times before you can get a handle on them. Their colours are okay, and you can imagine that if you could just get them a bit higher, they’d spread their wings and take off.
The awful ideas start off in a knot and get worse from there. Once untangled, they are attracted to trees and power lines. They are more work than they are worth, and yet somehow hanging on to the string and trying to make them play nice is irresistible.
The idea fix
We all want our ideas to succeed. That’s why we picked this game: It feels good to conceive a concept and watch it take flight… to point to the sky and say I did that. When the paycheque comes at the end of the month, we measure ourself against our successes.
But recognizing that not every idea is good, how can we capitalize on the good ones while avoiding wasting time on the ones that aren’t worth pursuing?
Be a farmer: Imagine if a farmer planted one seed every season. Think of the pressure of making that one plant grow to be healthy enough to support the family for that season. Farmers don’t do this of course. They plant fields of seeds and they see what works. If a certain crop isn’t working, they move on. Create an environment where you seed your mind with a lot of ideas. The pressure of any single idea being enough to retire on is now gone. Now that the idea drought is over, you’re less likely to fall in love with the first one to come along.
Be a scribe: Get the ideas out of your head as soon as you can. Learn to daydream on paper. I carry a Moleskine Notebook with me everywhere I go. Writing down ideas like this serves several purposes. Not only can you remember it later, but it also forces you to consider it in a more concrete form. If it doesn’t feel as good on paper as it did in your head, then maybe its not the amazing kite you thought it was. Conversely, if one small paragraph or sketch quickly turns into several pages, you might be onto something worth pursuing.
Be a swordsmith: Once you have an idea that has some form to it, like a swordsmith, test it for impurities. What might look incredible in a prototype stage, could have a flaw that contributes to its ultimate weakness. Run your idea past a friend or, better yet, a stranger. They can often contribute the Yeah, but what if… factor that you had never considered. Online, test your ideas using analytics and benchmark against clearly defined goals. Be honest with yourself – is it working or not?
Be a painter, not an artist: An important distinction between those who sling paint. While artists are often the more admired of the two; they invest so much of themselves into their work that they fail to see opportunities to change. A painter, on the other hand, is willing to paint over a wall several times to get a room looking just right. Be objective and avoid investing too much of your self-worth into your creation. You create ideas, you have ideas, but you, yourself, are not your idea..
Be an undertaker: Kill ideas. If something isn’t working, and you’ve given it a chance… kill it. Every day that you avoid this step, you’re wasting time that could be spent on something better. Take pride in your ability to be objective, strategic and productive. Bad ideas are not an endurance sport; no one is waiting for you with a medal at the finish line. With bad ideas, the finish line is failure – so its better to drop out.
Be a scientist: Look at your winning ideas and pick out the traits that made it successful. Dissect the elements that made it stand out from the rest and try to replicate those with your next attempts.
Be a DJ: Keep a collection of old ideas that may not have worked as well as you would have liked. Periodically, dig through your collection and try to remix them. Are there concepts that could play better in other contexts? Has the market changed? Has your product changed?
Do you have strategies that go into separating good ideas from bad ideas? How do you test? When do you know when to quit? Leave your thoughts in the comments.