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    Thinking in Progress  • • •

    The merit of ideas and ideation

    There is a wildly uninformed saying, “ideas are worthless.” It’s usually used as an abbreviated way to say “ideas are worthless without execution,” which is simply untrue.

    Ideas aren’t worthless. Ideas are magic.

    As creators, ideas are our lifeblood. Exploring them, even without executing on them, has great merit. Knowing how to come up with and develop ideas effectively is a tremendous skill.

    Practicing scales

    Recently, I saw this question on Twitter: “What is the equivalent of a musician practicing scales for what you do?”

    For me, it’s thinking and ideating. These are the activities of my core work. I seek to understand problems better, and develop my and others’ ideas further.

    Saying “ideas don’t matter; only shipping products matter” to a product creator is like telling a musician “practicing scales doesn’t matter; only singles on the radio matter.”

    I enjoy exercises of thinking and ideating in areas completely unrelated to my core work often; it keeps me sharp, my processes clear, and my mind flexible. And sometimes these unrelated ideations unexpectedly intersect with my core work, advancing it in a surprising direction.

    Impossible ideas

    Impossible ideas can lead to great, possible ideas. The Dyson sphere is an example: It is the concept of a hypothetical megastructure that could gather the energy needed for interstellar travel. It involves surrounding a star with many nodes, creating a net that could gather more energy than we can create on earth, and directing it to wherever it is needed.

    This concept is an impossible idea, but it has led to an entirely new way to look for sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilizations: by watching stars for a rhythmic “blinking” effect, which would imply that a sphere of many nodes is passing around it. This very phenomenon has been witnessed a few times now, and despite the low odds of these being Dyson spheres, organizations such as the SETI Institute are following up on these interesting findings.

    The dots connect later

    You have no idea where a sufficiently creative process of ideation will lead you. The dots connect later: You can’t connect the dots looking forward, only looking back.

    Great ideas can lead to other great ideas. They can inspire thought from new perspectives, provoke the thinker to question something in a new way, or develop some unexpectedly similar idea into new directions.

    Even disconnected from any practical application, wild ideation has great merit: Wild ideas can lead you to applicable ideas. Wild ideas can unexpectedly intersect with current work. Techniques discovered while developing a wild idea may be the perfect recipe needed in another body of work.

    If we limit ourselves to only that which is immediately applicable — what will immediately make us money, progress our current work, or is guaranteed to be accepted — we will miss out on the best new paths that we can create for ourselves and our work.

    The most important advancements in my work have all come from ideas and ideation on topics that had no clear application to my current work. Exploring interesting ideas and engaging in regular ideation without regard for how something interesting might apply to my current work has been the leading force in my career.

    Ideating like a designer or a developer

    By exploring ideas that I have no intention of executing on, I often lead myself to even greater ideas which I very much do execute on. Sometimes it’s within weeks, but sometimes it’s years later (and those are often the best ones).

    It’s an instrumental part of the process; much like you’d find, more tangibly, in graphic design or software development.

    As a designer, you often explore design ideas you have just for fun. Maybe an illustration becomes a shirt in your shop, or maybe it just sits on your computer. You often try a couple of variations for your client: some conservative, some daring. You know most of the variations won’t be used. But you never delete the files.

    In a month, a year, or a few years, as you’re working on something else, you realize that an unused exploration, variation, scrap, or technique applies perfectly. You adapt it to your new project, and everything clicks.

    This happens in design work all the time, and though less visibly, it happens just as often in thought work and other fields of exploration and creation.

    The code that prints “Hello, World” on the screen is not terribly useful to anyone but the developer, nor is it ever shipped, but it is tremendously helpful in allowing the novice developer to begin laying the building blocks. More advanced code never shipped can be tremendously helpful in allowing the advanced developer to progress their own understanding of more complex software — much of the code a developer writes is never a part of the final, shipped product. Refactoring a few times to get to a better result sends lots of code to the bin, never to be used — but that doesn’t mean it was useless; it was a part of the process.

    Just as the developer writes lots of code that never ships as a part of their process, the ideator explores ideas never executed on as a part of their own process.

    Brilliant teams

    In the phenomenal book Creativity, Inc., Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull wrote, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.” This quote can be misused to imply that the idea does not matter; only the team matters.

    But Ed says it very succinctly: with good ideas as the goal, a brilliant team will get you there. If we can be brilliant at what we do, we can turn mediocre ideas into great ideas. All it takes is a deeper understanding, and a willing curiosity, followed eventually by a series of ideas burning to be experimented with.

    A worthwhile endeavor

    Ultimately, “ideas are worthless” is meant to say the same thing as “real artists ship” — that nothing matters until you do something with an idea. Whether or not that embedded message is true, the statement itself (probably accidentally) devalues the merit of ideas and ideation.

    Ideas and ideation, much like unshipped software, can be instrumental for the ideator or creator to develop better and more interesting ideas. They are a key part of the process to get at some of the best of what’s possible.

    To say that ideas are worthless, or that ideation is worthless, is to be completely blind to how the human mind works, to how innovation works, and to how thinking works. It robs you of the opportunity to make profound, unexpected discoveries. Ask any screenwriter if ideas are worthless, and they’ll likely show you their journal full of scattered entries which have, quite often, informed some of their best work.

    This all means that finding, growing, and pursuing great ideas is a very worthwhile endeavor. Trusting in the merit of ideas opens us up to the merit of ideation and of improving our processes and effectiveness in ideation.

    Exploring ideas wildly, knowing how to ideate effectively — these can lead to a menagerie of novel insights that regularly infuse your work with something far better than you’d otherwise expect. You open yourself up to surprising insights and odd connections.

    And when it does come time for execution: Great execution on great ideas is when sparks turn to fire. I love it every time I see it happen.

    Ideas aren’t meaningless. Ideas are a critical part of the process.

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