How to have good ideas

October 11, 2006 | By | Reply More

Having good ideas is a quest with which all writers struggle.  And all non-writers too.

How does one develop good ideas?  Have them, recognize them and hone them, it would seem.  But only the first of these three tasks (having raw ideas pop into one’s head) is easy.  For the most part, good ideas are developed (not found) and this requires hard work.  Developing good ideas is rarely like it is portrayed on television, where fully formed ideas drop down from the sky with little effort.

I am not suggesting (by writing this post) that I have more original ideas than the average person.  I plainly admit that almost every worthy idea I’ve ever expressed was not original to me.  In fact, I’d be surprised if I had more than a couple dozen original, substantial and worthy ideas in my entire life.  I assume that most of my ideas have been plagiarized (though usually not intentionally) or that they were simply a modified versions of someone elses’ ideas (modified by stretching them, inverting them or combining them with other borrowed ideas).

How does one have good new ideas?  When Linus Pauling was asked how he was able to make so many discoveries, he replied: “You must have lots of ideas and just throw away the bad ones.”

Those who don’t have many ideas of their own (for instance, those who watch lots of mind-numbing television) don’t have many good ideas of their own.  For most of my life, I have sought out quiet places where worthy ideas have a better chance of popping into my head.   Though many ideas do pop into my head, most of them are uninspiring.  That’s where the second half of Pauling’s quote comes into play.  You’ve got to have the courage to throw away all those uninteresting ideas. 

Many people are reluctant to throw away their own ideas, however.   They love their own ideas, not because they are worthy, but because they thought of them; they guard their bad ideas as if they were their children.  A similar thing happens with many people who take photographs.  They just can’t bear to throw away any of their photos.  Thus, they bring 100 photos of their cat to show to their friends.  It’s stifling to be subjected to this kind of thing as an audience.  Such a trick it is to throw away most of one’s bad ideas or bad photos!  If you have the courage to do this, people will think you are talented or inspired.  “That photo of your cat is incredible!  You are an extraordinary photographer!”

Having good ideas, then, requires putting in the time to have them and then throwing out the garbage.  As Edison said:  “Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”  This is bad news, in that good ideas don’t just automatically happen.  It’s good news too, though, because it democratizes good ideas.  Good ideas come to anyone who works at developing them, rich or poor.

Most of the creative people I know always have their minds churning on new ideas.  There is no substitute to putting in the time generating and then throwing out ideas.  Sometimes (when I’m lucky) I get into one of these streaks where I can’t turn my mind off.  Only sometimes, when I’m in one of those streaks, am I productive.  Whenever I’ve been effective, though, it’s because I’ve put in substantial time.  In a busy world, it’s important to remind oneself that there rarely are shortcuts.  You’ve got to put in the time to succeed in the world of ideas.  Quite often, that world requires putting one’s ideas in writing so that one can react to them.  It is usually when I try to put my good ideas in writing that I realize that they aren’t so good after all; they are often exposed to be muddled or vague when I see them in writing.

Contrary to what I thought when I was much younger, most good ideas are not hatched ready to use.  Rather, ideas need to be worked like putty to fit specific situations.  I am an attorney by profession.  I need to work hard to take “raw” good ideas and try to make them really fly.  Most good ideas need this further work to be effective. 

What’s the best way to make an idea effective?  Attack it!  Several of us gather together and attack each other’s ideas ruthlessly (because we don’t have any employees named “Ruth”).   We do carry out these “attacks” respectfully, of course, because we don’t want to hurt feelings unnecessarily.  At my workplace, we relish these sessions because we they produce much better ideas than praising the mediocre ideas that comes out of our mouths most of the time. 

When our small group thinks we’ve locked onto an really good idea, we gather an audience to test it further, but we don’t do this until we’ve prepared the audience. We first make sure that our test audience members know that they haven’t been brought in to praise our ideas.  I usually tell them that they have failed as an audience if they simply say “Hey, good job.”  Such bland praise teaches me nothing.

I like to tell our test audience that we know that there are things wrong with the idea and that it is their job to find them.  As it usually turns out, there often is a problem and they often do find it.  That allows us to address the weakness, either by tweaking the idea or scrapping the idea and starting over.  It’s not always pleasant to learn that one’s prized idea is defective, but such displeasure is always outweighed by learning how to improve one’s idea.  Working with an audience in this way helps us to think critically.  It’s our attempt to create a mini-marketplace of competing ideas.

How important is it for the audience to be honest and vigorous in its criticism?  It’s indispensable.  Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

” . . . [H]is disciple cried impetuously:  ‘But I believe in your cause and consider it so strong that I shall say everything, everything that I still have in my mind against it.’     The innovator laughed in his heart and wagged a finger at him.  ‘This kind of discipleship,’ he said the, ‘is the best; but it is also the most dangerous, and not every kind of doctrine can endure it.'”

[Nietzsche – The Gay Science (1882) Section 106, “Music as an Advocate”]

Nietzsche also expressed this idea more poetically in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves.

The opposite of Nietzsche’s approach has been given the name “groupthink”: 

Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis, occurs when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of “mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.”  Groups affected by groupthink ignore alternatives and tend to take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups.  A group is especially vulnerable to groupthink when its members are similar in background, when the group is insulated from outside opinions, and when there are no clear rules for decision making.

An often-used example of Groupthink these days is the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq. The evidence is now overwhelming that the Bush White House did not tolerate dissent and thus ended up with very bad ideas.

Decision experts have suggested the following antidotes to groupthink

      a) The leader should assign the role of critical evaluator to each member
      b) The leader should avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset
      c) Each member of the group should routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate and report back to the group on the associate’s reactions
      d) One or more experts should be invited to each meeting on a staggered basis.  The outside experts should be encouraged to challenge views of the members.
      e) At least one articulate and knowledgeable member should be given the role of devil’s advocate (to question assumptions and plans)
      f) The leader should make sure that a sizeable block of time is set aside to survey warning signals from rivals; leader and group construct alternative scenarios of rivals’ intentions.

Inviting dissent and skepticism, and even celebrating them, is critical to developing good ideas.   Though it is sometimes bitter medicine, internal dissent and skepticism is the only chance of keeping people and countries intellectually healthy.


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Category: Communication, Iraq, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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