When was the last time you came up with a good idea? Not just a “good idea” but a mind-blowing idea that solved business or personal problems? I’m guessing, like the rest of us, you’d say “not recently.” It’s like remembering the last time you put a fresh box of baking soda in your fridge to remove odors. “Let’s see, I think it was…2004.”
Dictionary.com defines an idea as “…something, such as a thought or conception, that… exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.” Leonard Bernstein, the renowned composer, conductor and thinker, said in a recorded interview years ago that an idea is “the intersection of two facts.” In other words, our brain neurons combine random thoughts or facts into something new or inventive. Some people might even call that “creativity.”
Throughout the ages, bright people have solved many life problems with innovative ideas, creating better forms of government and improving products and services. Here in the U.S., we celebrate one of them on July 4th when our founders thought a democracy was best for our new nation.
But is our dilemma a lack of good ideas, not acting on them or fear of rejection? Linus Pauling, a brilliant scientist, said “the best way to get good ideas is to have lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” Howard H. Aiken, quoted in Robert Slater’s book “Portraits in Silicon Valley,” wrote: “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”
Perhaps people avoid new ways of thinking fearing they’re not good or someone will criticize them for suggesting them. To this, Admiral Grace Hopper said: “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It is much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
Likewise, Alfred Whitney Griswold wrote an essay for the New York Times in 1959, claiming that “…books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.” In our current financial malaise, I don’t think anyone would argue against trying different approaches to solve our many problems.
Our views on reality, in fact, are based on what we think. Alan Moore in “What is Reality,” claimed that “ideas, unlike solid structures, do not perish. They remain immortal, immaterial and everywhere, like all Divine things. Ideas are a golden savage landscape that we wander unaware, without a map. Be careful: in the last analysis reality may be exactly what we think it is.”
Sergey Brin, one of the co-founders of Google, went further arguing that ideas by themselves don’t resolve our difficulties but are necessary. “It’s important not to overstate the benefits of ideas. Quite frankly, I know it’s kind of a romantic notice that you’re just going to have this one brilliant idea and then everything is going to be great. But the fact is that coming up with an idea is the least important thing. It has to be the right idea and have good taste, but the execution and delivery are what’s key.”
Speaking about Google, every month 37 million Web users search for the words “ideas” and 9 million for “idea.” Clearly, people are interested in new ways of thinking and useful information. But taking action, regardless of criticism or believing we may err, is critical to solve our many problems.