Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Do Your Favorite Idea
We all have ideas. Many of them we’ve held inside for a long time, terrified of actually doing them.
A work of art, a fiction story, an app, a business, an unheard-of-ly flashy party favor . . . We all have them, but we don’t all do them. Elon Musk does his. Oprah does hers. Michael Crichton did his.
Do we do ours?
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If we don’t, why not? Here are two possible reasons. See if they resonate with you.
- We know the finished product won’t meet our expectations. We know that expertise comes only to those who do something a lot. And we’ve never done this kind of idea before. So of course we won’t do a good job at planting a garden. We’ve never gardened before. It hurts to imagine doing something poorly.
- Having ideas feels good. Doing ideas often feels unpleasant. It’s fun to toss our idea back and forth in our mind, envisioning its wild success. But the prospect of actually doing it, of making it real, feels like sending your child out alone into the cold, naked and unprepared for the real world. We sense that there are more dimensions and logistics to making the idea real than we currently realize, and we fear getting derailed in the attempt. What’s worse, we fear that, in the process of turning it into a concrete reality, it may lose that magical, mystical quality that makes the idea . . . ideal: its purity, its x factor. Because our cheap execution won’t match our grand vision, we may succeed in making Pinocchio into a real boy, but his soul may evaporate in the heat of effort. The idea of a thing, it turns out, feels more comfortable than the thing itself.
We’ve all been around long enough to know that these reasons are legitimate. We will do a poor job acting on our first idea in a new domain. It is unpleasant to birth an idea with an expectation of mediocrity ringing in our mind. So we freeze up. We don’t do anything.
But, to paraphrase Kenneth Koch, one truth may hide another.
There is a law of nature often called the law of the harvest. It dictates that when you spend something of value, you receive a recompense greater than what you spent. This is the idea behind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s statement that “the creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” You invest time and care into a relationship, and it becomes steady and warm. You plant a seed, and it yields fruit, which carry in them seeds for future plantings. It’s a virtuous cycle.
The law of the harvest was a familiar concept in the old world, where farming was more commonplace than today. The New Testament has several references to it, the most clear of which is probably the parable of the talents. I’ve modified it to show how the law of the harvest applies to ideas.
The Muse delivered unto two writers ideas for novels. Unto one she gave two ideas, and to another, she gave one idea; to each novelist according to his ability; and straightway she disappeared.
Then he that had received two novel ideas went and wrote them down, and plotted them out, and wrote several drafts, and turned them each into polished manuscripts, which he submitted for publication, and in the process he got another four new novel ideas. But he that had received one novel idea went and looked out the window for a long time, and scrolled through his Facebook feed, and watched a few seasons of The Blacklist, and didn’t do his novel idea.
After a long time the Muse came, and reckoned with them.
And so he that had received two novel ideas came to her and brought another four outlines, saying, “O Muse, thou gave unto me two novel ideas: behold, I have published the two and gained in addition four more.” The Muse said unto him, “Well done, thou good and faithful novelist: thou hast been faithful over a few ideas, I will generate for thee many more ideas. Enter thou into the joy of The New York Times Best Sellers list.”
Then he which had received one novel idea came and said, “Muse, I knew that thou art an elusive and altogether unreliable demi-goddess, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t do a good job, and wouldn’t get anymore ideas, and so I hid my idea in my mind.” The Muse answered and said unto him, “Thou wicked and slothful novelist, thou ought to have acted on thine idea, and then at my coming I would have helped thee get onto The New York Times Best Seller list. I will take therefore the novel idea from thee, and give it unto him which hath four ideas. For unto every one that doeth what he hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that doeth not what he hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath.”
When we act on our ideas and make them real, four things happen:
- There is now room in our mind for a new idea. Holding onto our idea takes up space and mental processing power that is freed up when the idea is out in the real world and no longer in our head.
- We get more than one replacement idea. Because our mind now trusts that we’ll do the ideas it generates, we may receive two or three or more instead of just one. This is also in part because, having done the idea, our mind has expanded with the experience we’ve gained, so there is more room to fit ideas. It’s like a positive Greek hydra: we do one idea, only to have several more sprout up.
- We get better and better ideas each time. As we turn an idea into reality, we discover there is more to making it real than we thought. If it’s a novel, there are outlines, scene structure, three-dimensionality of characters to figure out, not to mention writing good dialogue and prose. If it’s a business, we find ourselves learning about taxes, website design, copywriting, social media marketing, and SEO, not to mention the actual core competency of our business. As we struggle to do well in these new dimensions, our experience and expertise in the domain grows, and our minds become open to richer and deeper ideas. So naturally the next ideas we get are better than the one we last worked on.
- Because of this expertise, we’ll do a better job on the next idea we act on. Not only will new ideas be better and more developed as we do our current ones, our ability to do them justice will increase.
As we follow this cyclical path — bravely doing our current ideas and receiving multiple better ones in its place — we develop deep trust in the law of the harvest and confidence in our ability to execute well, fueling us to run down the path vigorously and without the burden of worry.
Steven S. DeKnight, TV writer and producer (Smallville, Angel, Sparticus) said in the documentary Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show, “At one point early on in my career, I was worried that I had run out of ideas. I thought, ‘Well what if that’s it? What if the well is dry?’ Ten, eleven years later, I’m faced with the opposite problem: I have so many projects up on my project board that I look at them and realize, I’m going to [die] before I get all this stuff out there.”
Ten years ago, as an undergrad, I applied to work at a training center run by my university. In the interview, I had to teach a lesson. It was the most abysmal lesson I’ve ever witnessed. But one English degree, three summers of teaching at a youth camp, and five Sunday School posts later, I can now communicate ideas cohesively and clearly with much greater ease.
As I have written fiction stories over the years, each one turns out better than the last. The ideas I get are richer and more interesting, and my ability to turn them into cohesive and meaningful stories continues to improve.
Like Mr. DeKnight, the day we realize we’ll never stop getting new ideas is a truly liberating day. We can work on our favorite ideas without fear of botching them up. We can botch them up, and it won’t be that big of a deal because the next idea will be better, and the next even better than that, in both substance and execution. (Disclaimer: we still have to always give each idea a good effort; nothing good is made by slacking off). If we do an idea poorly, we can just consider it practice for the next few and move on.
Furthermore, the tyranny of perfectionism lessens. We could spend lots of extra time fretting over making this current project the best thing that’s ever been done. Or, in the same amount of time, we could do a decent job on three projects, and even if they all turn out 80% of where we want them to be, because we get better with each finished project, the third idea from now will be better — and significantly better executed — than the one we’re currently trying to perfect.
But how do we move from clinging to a seemingly scarce creative resource to having an abundance of ideas and the expertise to make them real? It takes a step of faith. It takes trust in the law of the harvest. It takes faith to invest that first idea and trust that two will return in its place. It takes faith to sacrifice your favorite idea to a mediocre execution and trust that multiple better ones will replace it, and that your current inexperience will be replaced with improved skills. Once we start on the path, we’ll see the results. But to take that initial step, we have to hope and trust and believe . . . and just try it. Like Indiana Jones, we have to close our eyes and step out into the chasm before we realize the air is solid beneath our feet.
You can take that step. You can make that choice. I know you can.
So that favorite idea you’re clinging to? Do it, and then do the ones that replace it, and you will begin a virtuous cycle that will yield many good works and much satisfaction.
Photo by Nitin Bhosale