A good idea will keep you awake during the morning, but a great idea will keep you awake during the night. – Marilyn vos Savant
Being able to have and hold ideas is what makes us human. It’s an ability that can trap us in prisons of thought and belief and it’s an ability that can free us to create extraordinary things. But what is a good idea and how can you recognize it?
I think we have to approach this question indirectly because the word “idea” is used in too many way too easily. Let’s look at the word “theory” instead because that’s a good substitute. In an introduction to a set of papers on theory development titled “Nothing Is Quite So Practical as a Good Theory” Andrew H. Van de Ven (1989) introduces a few papers on the subject.
Cherrypicking from this paper let’s start with insisting that a good idea needs to be practical. It needs to be something that you can do. It also needs to be useful, to you, or to someone else. A good idea needs to be based in reality, grounded in data. A good idea explains something that you didn’t understand until then and a good idea predicts what will happen if you follow it.
Can you think of any ideas that you have that fit this list? You’ll find any number of good ideas in books – many are written entirely around one big idea. Take Felix Dennis’s How To Get Rich, for example. It pretty much comes down to “Get on with it.” In fact, his poem at the start of the book reads “The first step? Just do it, And bluff your way through it” One of my favourite books, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance says “the most important thing is peace of mind”.
A good idea can keep you going. That one in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance has served me well for twenty years. Your choice of ideas governs how you live and act and the choices you make. The ideas you hold will make you rich or keep you poor, give you freedom or hold you in bondage. You are entirely in the power of your ideas.
There’s nothing quite as valuable as a good idea but the great thing about a good idea, is that you can give it away and still have it. You don’t lose anything by telling someone else your good idea because when you’re done you both have it. It’s multiplied.
If you’re the kind of person that’s full of ideas, then you have a good chance at having a good one every once in a while. What you have to ask yourself is if you’re willing to be the kind of person that can execute on a good idea.
If you can, you’re set.