The Worthlessness of Ideas

The Worthlessness of Ideas

Commenter Ben Yoskovitz challenges the idea that ideas are worthless, a view I have stated one-sidedly in a recent post: Obsessing Over Lost Ideas. It’s completely understandable that Ben would take affront to this, and he unleashes a laundry list of reasons why ideas are great.

Here’s some of his points (check out his post for more detail):

  • Ideas create communication.
  • Ideas Have No Risk? Says Who?
  • Ideas help us be more creative.
  • Ideas lead to change.
  • Ideas foster communication.
  • Ideas are the birthplace of businesses.
  • Ideas beget more ideas.
  • Ideas foster enthusiasm.

Yes, yes, and yes! Don’t get me wrong…I love ideas. My perspective, however, is that ideas by themselves have little worth from a “results” perspective. An idea that stays in my head just takes up space, so either I tell someone about it (useful!) or I do something with it (world changing!)

Ideas that Make Me Itch

The scenario that irks me is when someone believes that being “the original idea-haver” is an entitlement, and that anyone who actually goes and does something with it is ripping them off. When I used to be a teaching assistant for graphic design students, I would occassionally have to resolve complains that “Student B is ripping off my idea!” It usually came down to something like this:

“Dave, did you see Student B’s work?” “Yes, Student A. What about it?” “She’s totally ripping off my design!” “Really? Tell me more.” “See how I’m using circular elements here on my layout? She’s…” and here the student would lower his voice, humbled by the ethical sins he was about to expose, “…she’s also using circles! Like me! You have to stop this! It’s not fair!”

The thought that would go through my mind was, “What, did you invent the circle? Are you the first person to put it in a design? Sheesh!” I would usually tell them something that the circle is a pretty basic element, and it was how you really used it that would make a difference…look, there’s so many other ways you can combine size, tone, image, etc to make a completely different look that blows away “The Circle Stealer”, who would happily go on with her business learning instead of, you know, looking over her shoulder.

Then there’s the scenario where someone believes in idea-work equivalency; that is, having the idea in the first place entitles one to claim credit for all the work that was done to make it happen. Their argument is, “Hey, you wouldn’t have been able to do anything without my idea, so really everything you’ve done based on it belongs to me.” While this perhaps is true (and this is when I wish I’d studied Rhetoric in college), it’s also incredibly disrespectful to the people who got off their asses and did the work. I have a particularly strong allergic reaction to people like this.

Ideas as Catalysts

I don’t think what I’m saying is an argument against what Ben is saying. I actually agree with all his points; our difference may be where we put the emphasis. I would say that there’s three ways I measure the “worth” of an idea:

  • As a catalyst for action.
  • As a catalyst for communication.
  • As a catalyst for community.

My position is that though ideas are catalysts, the meaningful expression of worth is a result of the complete reaction. A catalyst without something to catalyze is just inert, sitting and doing nothing.

On the other hand, a catalyst is a substance that enables incredible things to happen. While a catalyst is inert by itself, so is that pile of resources. A true catalyst enables you to transmute that pile of resources from junk into gold. And truly, that is worth some serious bucks.

So if ideas can be catalysts in the way I describe, aren’t they then by definition worth something? Well, no…most ideas are not catalysts. They are wishful thinking.

Imagination versus Catalysts

A non-technical Mac user once told me his idea to solve the Great Macintosh Speed Problem of 1986 (a drought which continued until 2006, I might add). His solution was brilliant in its simplicity: “Put more than one processor in the Mac! They’re not that expensive! Problem solved!”

I started to tell him, as the ever-eager computer engineering student, that it wasn’t that simple, but he would hear nothing of it. He had solved the problem in his mind. That’s wishful thinking…a pleasant fantasy, but not one that was easily acted upon. That is not to say that dreams don’t have a place; as Ben points out, these dreams (ideas) inspire us. So of course we do have multi-processing Macs now, finally…the idea never died; it just took a lot of hard work and a completely different operating system to get it right.

I’m going to postulate that a true catalyzing idea has to meet the following criteria:

  • It describes a specific reaction between resources yields some desirable result that can be applied in an existing process (physical or social).
  • It short-circuits our notion of how such reactions have occured in the past, creating an order-of-magnitude lead over existing methods.
  • Our perception of the reaction is irreversibly altered, redefining conventional wisdom in the process.
  • And the most important criterion of all: We think it’s AWESOME. That’s the gut-check, where our intuition comes into play.

If you have such an idea, I think you’ve probably got something. And that is worth crowing about to someone. You have just crafted a piece of practical magic.

If your idea falls short on any of these specifics, that’s OK. Use it as your defining vision, and inspire yourself. Rest assured that plugging away at your idea will yield results, maybe not the ones you were expecting, but it may lead up to that life-changing critical insight that does pay off big. As a dance instructor once told me, the hardest part about taking dance lessons is just showing up.

If you have an idea that you think is worth something…show us. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies, “it’s a moral imperative”.

The Divisiveness of Ideas

One thing Ben said struck close to home: telling people about your ideas can be really scary. I think I’ve slowly lost my fear of that, but that is because am relatively independent and I tend to judge ideas on their own merit (I’m an INTJ/INFP, if that means anything to anyone). Unfortunately, a lot of the time people judge us by our ideas, and that can have serious repercussions in the workplace and even the home.

I’m using the term “ideas” pretty loosely here, so I will make a distinction between what we say we believe/think, what we imagine, what we plan, and what we perceive:

  • What we say we believe/think — Religion, Mac versus PC, Red States versus Blue States…you know. This isn’t what I’m really talking about when I say “ideas” in this post.

  • What we imagine — This is a little closer. This is about values, dreams, and desire. It’s also very private, and in a politically-charged environment these bits of information can be used against us, twisted to create a damning statement from our own words.

  • What we plan — This is more nuts and bolts; “how we will do things to achieve a certain goal”. We can be judged on this too, by our bosses and coworkers, who all have their own idea of how something works. If our plan doesn’t hold water, it splashes all over our chance for promotion. Bummer.

  • What we perceive — I’m a big believer in looking at things from multiple angles, because ideas often work only in a specific context; you have to be able to see the context before you can have the idea. Then the problem is explaining it to someone with a different perspective. You see this happen a lot between upper executives and floor workers: executives see a very distorted picture of how things work if they don’t get out of their corner offices. Even worse, everything they say and do is magnified thousands of times beyond what it may really mean. This is a good example of 1% of what is visible is perceived as 100% of the reality, which doesn’t do anyone any good in the long run. When your crazy-sounding idea comprises the bulk of that 1% to your boss, you’re going to be careful about what you say.

I don’t have any solutions to this, other than deciding to be a freelancer and work on my own ideas on the side. I’m incredibly grateful that this Internet thing exists for me to ramble into, but even I am nervous about what I put up here from time-to-time:

  • That post I wrote about getting a manicure, for example, was predicated on the idea that “seeking any kind of experience and writing about it is good”…a strong position to take! On the other hand, I was also worried that people might think I was some kind of nancy-boy, and I’d never have another date for the rest of my life. I decided that people who thought that were probably people I wouldn’t be interested in hanging out anyway, and just let it ride.

  • Then there was the one about thinking negative, which I wrote when I was feeling kind of depressed. I spun out a somewhat derivative-but-authentic tale about seeing ghosts in my house, and by the end of it I actually felt much better. And. I. Posted. It. That night I couldn’t sleep because I imagined losing my entire readership because This Is Not What I Signed Up For. The next day, I got some calls from my friends that were like, “Um, OK. You OK?” and Gueeessss whooooo thiiisssss issssSSSSssSS? WooOOooOOooo! But I also got some comments from people who appreciated the story, and shared some of their own experiences with me. From then on I decided that I would just post what came to me, and live with it. I don’t want to live in fear of my own ideas.

So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m very pro idea, but I nevertheless value them more when they’re put into action or shared.

Now that I think about it, this is probably one of the main motivations for my private Freelancer/Idea Forum: it’s private and optionally anonymous because I wanted to create a sanctuary where people could feel free to express their ideas. I value every idea that people post about, and I believe that everyone who’s active feels the same way. Although anyone can sign up, there IS a price of admission: you must share a little bit of yourself before you’re allowed to join the community; that takes some guts and motivation, and knowing that everyone in the forum has gone through that rite of passage automatically makes them one of your peers.

And with that, let a thousand ideas bloom.


  1. karmatosed 18 years ago

    An idea alone is like a invoice or credit note to me. When it is actioned it is cashed and becomes tangiably worth something. I am not just talking money as a worth value here. Ideas can light the fire to action, but can also have a bucket of water put them out when brought to someone else. Both actions are useful in the process of the idea. Thinking the idea is the first trigger and the dominos of getting it into action move on from that one thought.

  2. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    That’s a great and concise way of expressing that, karmatosed! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Marc Shiman 18 years ago

    The question is – does an idea belong to the person who conceived it? Or does an idea have a life of its own? Should it be set free to grow organically?

    Ideas are solutions to problems; sometimes they are problems others didn’t realize existed, but always they should solve something. Clearly if it only solves YOUR problem, it won’t have much of a life.

    If its an idea that solves many people’s problems, then some serious thought should be given to releasing it into the open-source, and letting other creative types nurture it in ways its creator had never anticipated.

    I mean, do we always have to get monetary rewards from a moment of enlightenment? If you have developed the skill of finding problems and identifying solutions, wealth and fame will someday come. But as a blind squirrel you’ve stumbled across a nut, hanging on to a notion probably isn’t the best use of your abilities.

    Personally I believe in setting ideas free.

  4. Earl Moore 18 years ago

    Dave, thanks for sharing your ideas on ideas. Good reading that has inspired a self examination of my own thoughts. Sincerely.

  5. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Marc: That’s a very interesting question! Should ideas be free? I think it comes down to what you believe…it’s great that you believe ideas should be free.

    Earl: You’re welcome! I liked your followup on Meandering Passage. The idea of moral boundaries is something I hadn’t thought of (what Marc’s talking about is sort of in the same territory).