In defense of ideas

A little while ago, some friends of mine organized the third installment of a sort of bizzaro-TED they called "bill conference".1 Back when they launched the first bill, the local news site called it the "yin to TED's yang" because it was an unconference, where participants could present to each other, rather than a slickly produced talks from vetted speakers, but also because, where TED proclaims that it's about "ideas that matter," bill is about doing. The conference's current Twitter bio states, "Ideas are easy. Making stuff is hard."

I don't mention this to pick on bill conference. By all accounts, each event was a success for all involved. But I think it's also important to give ideas their due.

The sentiments expressed by Mike Monteiro above, by bill conference, and by many others, like @sugtw, are great reminders to stay productive, focus on execution and see a project through to the end. But as much as we need those reminders, I'm not sure downplaying the importance of ideas should come along for the ride.

Ideas may not require the same kind of physical exertion as making stuff, but it's wrong to say they're easy.

Ideas are their own kind of work.

They need time to develop. You have to get that time from somewhere, and there are lots of places to start, but you need time to have ideas. They need space to develop, as well, whether that's a city street or quiet workspace.

Of course, almost no one works all of their waking time. If you're on a walk or a long drive or raking the leaves, your mind has time to wander. One of my favorite non-fiction writers, Steven Johnson, wrote an entire book on the forces that conspire to generate good ideas. The entire book is interesting and relevant, but here's one passage in the section on serendipity:

The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original “eureka” moment—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before?2

Of course time alone isn't enough to grow ideas either. You can only have an idea on your break if you have something to take a break from.

And working is great, but even if you work for someone else, chances are you're going to have to bring some ideas of things to work on as well.

1. The name might not quite be your brand of humor, but I think it's hilarious.

2. Johnson, Steven (2011-10-04). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Kindle Locations 1245-1250). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.