Why Do Big Ideas Rarely Work?


Sunday, 8.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I never think of an entire book at once. I always just start with a very small idea. In ‘Holes,’ I just began with the setting; a juvenile correctional facility located in the Texas desert. Then I slowly make up the story, and rewrite it several times, and each time I rewrite it, I get new ideas, and change the old ideas around. – Louis Sachar

I’ve been looking at Ivan Brunetti’s books over the last few days – reminding myself of approach to drawing as I try and find a line that works for me and came across his An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories which has an essay by Charles M. Schulz on developing a comic strip.

I have the odd conversation with friends that have to with starting something new – and they usually have a BIG IDEA. Something that they believe is going to change everything. And because big ideas have come along in the past and had an impact, they believe that their idea has as much of a chance of success as one by anyone else. Is that the case and is there any way of telling what might happen one way or the other?

Schulz talks about how people aren’t willing to put in “the great amount of work that others do in comparable fields.” He’s talking about cartooning but this is a good starting point for almost any idea that someone has. Have they put in the work that’s needed to be in a position where they know what they’re talking about? Do they have the experience that matters?

Experience is not the same as technique. You might be able to do something to a certain standard but that’s different from doing something many many times and figuring out what works and what does not. It might be worth asking yourself whether you’ve spent the five to ten years that are needed to develop the skills and capabilities you are going to use. And we mustn’t forget that there are a limited number of ten-year periods that we have. If you still have a few ahead of you, then you might be able to try out different things. If not, you might need to figure out what experience you already have and that you can build on.

What you can’t do is spend a little bit of time learning something new and then expect that whatever you create is going to make you millions. Behind every overnight success is often decades of preparatory work.

Now, assuming you have put in the time to know something about what you want to do – then how should you start with a project? Should you start at the top with a grand idea or should you start at the bottom and build from there?

You will find people that support either point of view. The writer John McPhee, for example, always starts with a structure, a graphic of some kind that captures the big idea. Then again, his process also involves transcribing all of his notes, coding them and taking a bottom up approach to organising his material before he starts writing.

In Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes a scene where a student is finding it hard to write about a town. Pirsig tries to narrow the focus of the topic again and again but the student is still struggling. Finally, in exasperation, he snaps, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

The challenge with creating original work of any kind, according to Pirsig, is that all the stuff we already know comes in and gets in the way – we think we should do things in a certain way or that there is a particular approach that is best and we get blocked. We lose the ability to see what is actually there, instead getting lost in what we expect to see.

The way to unblock ourselves is to start seeing again. And we can’t do that with a big picture approach. We have to look closer and closer, smaller and smaller until we see what is actually there. And then that thing we see for the first time can form the kernel that we build around. If we do that we will end up creating something. And after a while we might create something that’s good.

The challenge is getting to the point where we can do original work. To get there, however, we have to practise and that means we have to imitate what others have done in order to learn. And eventually we’ll stop imitating and start to find our own style as long as we keep working at it.

Big ideas and models are banal – as my marketing lecturer said about one of my essays. Real value is in the specific, in the focused, in the unique.

That’s why we should start small, because it’s when you solve a particular problem, that applies in a particular situation for a particular group of people that you’re probably going to stumble across the next big idea.


Karthik Suresh

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