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Good Ideas and Great Ideas

2011 July 27

The world is full of ideas, but very few good ones. As an old saying goes, “ideas are like assholes, everybody’s got one and they’re usually full of shit.” They are, however, important.

Great ones can change the world.  Ideas, if we nurture them, can become dreams, transform the mundane into the sublime and poverty into prosperity.  Life would be exceedingly boring without ideas.

Yet it’s not enough to have a a flash of insight or a brainstorm.  A worthy idea needs to be nurtured and developed, rethought and reworked, often thrown away and picked back up again.  There’s a substantive difference between a passing fancy and  groundbreaking concept.  It is our approach to ideas that makes that difference.

A Good Idea has a Purpose

Our brains are always at work, even while we’re sleeping.  Our senses feed into our neurons that interface with memories of old experiences, which interact with other neurons doing the same thing.  When a new connection between neurons is made, we have an idea.  It happens all the time.

Ideas begin to have force, however, when they are put toward some purpose.  Einstein had time and space, which could not be adequately explained by Newton.  Gandhi had the British.  Tim Berners-Lee wanted to organize information at a physics lab.  You get the idea.

Good ideas, in other words, solve a problem.  Important ideas solve really tough problems and that takes time.  Usually we hear about dramatic flashes of inspiration, but the truth is usually vastly different.    They start with a seed and germinate for a while.  Steven Johnson, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, calls this the “Long Hunch.”

A Good Idea is Logical, and Verifiable

We often have flashes.  These are not ideas themselves, but with some work and some luck, they can become an idea.  Just because something occurs to you while you’re driving in the car, waiting in the checkout line or sitting in the bathroom doesn’t make it true or important.

For an idea to be workable, it must have internally consistent premises that lead to a conclusion.  That doesn’t mean that you always have to think about it that way, excessive logic can kill the spirit of an idea, but at some point you should be able to trace your way back.

Moreover, premises need to be logically verifiable.  You might feel, for instance, that “traditional media is crap,”  or that “business is in decline” but those are far too general to be verifiable statements.  As Wittgenstein pointed out, they don’t correspond to a specific “state of affairs” and therefore can’t be confirmed.

You could, of course, firm up such notions by saying specific things like that TV viewership has declined over the last decade (you’d be wrong) or that return on assets is falling (you’d be irrelevant), but at least you would be contributing to a serious discussion, not simply conjecturing wildly.

A Good Idea is Falsifiable

Karl Popper stressed that, for all of its charms, there is a problem with verifiability: we can only verify what happened in the past.  I can know that I had a tuna fish sandwich last week, but that’s no guarantee that I’ll have one next week.

That’s why it’s important for our ideas to be testable, so that we know if at some point we’ve gone off course, or that we missed something or that the facts on the ground simply changed.  If not, bad ideas can live long enough to cause real damage, like the kind that happened at Enron.  Popper called this his falsification principle.

George Soros, who has the dual distinction of being both a former student of Popper and a billionaire, said “I’m only rich because I know when I’m wrong… I basically have survived by recognizing my mistakes.”

You can’t believe everything you think.

A Good Idea is Parsimonious

When we get an idea, our first impulse is to make it bigger by adding to it.  We put a few more slides in the PowerPoint deck, a few more words into the sentence, a few more sentences to the paragraph and on and on it goes.  As Stalin said about armies, “quantity seems to have its own quality.”

Yet a good idea explains the maximum amount of variables in the minimum number of statements.  We are more likely to improve them by subtraction than addition, by honing them down rather by building onto them.  This particular idea is called the principle of parsimony and it has been around since the Middle Ages.

So it’s not a coincidence that some of the biggest ideas have come in small packages. Watson and Crick’s original paper announcing the discovery of the structure of DNA was barely two pages long and when Watt’s and Strogatz published their article that launched modern network theory it was even shorter.

A Good Idea Interfaces with Other Ideas

I read a lot of books; some very good, others less so.  One thing I’ve learned from reading so much is that whenever the author begins by saying that his or her idea makes all other ideas obsolete I can duly expect a load of bullshit to follow.

Good ideas don’t exist in a vacuum.  The best ones combine with other ideas, past and future, to increase their power.  As I noted in an earlier post, technology evolves through combinations, none can stand on their own, but thrive in ecosystems.

Shopping malls blossom in suburbs which need cars that won’t get very far without gas stations.  The Web was made possible by the Internet which needed computers (not to mention a well-funded military) to bring it to fruition.  Gregor Mendel’s discovery of genetics lay fallow for 50 years before Darwin’s ideas about evolution gave it new life.

Of course, ideas are often constraints.  When John von Neumann dreamed up the computer architecture which drives our modern ideas he soon realized he had a better idea.  Nonetheless, we’re stuck with the original one, for better or worse.

When people’s ideas don’t interface well with others they are often said to be “ahead of their time” and they often die alone and forgotten.

A Great Idea Inspires

How often do people tell us that they have a great idea, but that “nobody gets it?”  It’s a classic case of blaming the victim.

A great idea inspires others to push it even further than the originator ever imagined.  Max Planck’s idea about blackbody radiation inspired Einstein’s idea about light quanta which inspired others to pioneer the field of quantum mechanics from which we get lasers and i-Pods.

Interestingly, both Einstein and Planck were skeptical of the revolutions they spawned. That’s not unusual.  Truly important concepts take on a life of their own, sometimes delighting and sometimes horrifying their originators.  They defy ownership and enter the public domain.

Good ideas, if they are to become great, must be set free.

– Greg

13 Responses leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011

    I superlike the article for its starting line ; Also, the last line that : A good idea defy ownership and enter the public domain. I came across one article on spreading of ideas hence sharing with you :

    The problem occurs in : How to nurture an idea ? Require help on this.

    There may be point where your good idea is obsolete for the business sense hence nobody picking it up. Confused in this case also..

  2. July 27, 2011


    I think with regards to nurturing an idea, the first point is crucial. You have to apply the idea to specific problems and see how it does.

    – Greg

  3. July 27, 2011

    Yet another great article!

    I love Popper – how his implications go so much against modern experiemental sciences, especially in physics, where scientists first gather data and the INDUCE the theory instead of the inverse process… But then again, welcome to the modern science (or let’s say much of it)!

    A good, geeky and modern examples of “great ideas need to be set free” Xerox and Google as both were trend-setters and became incrisbed in our vocabularies as verbs. “To google” means now to search while “to xerox” means to copy – many dont even know that xerox is the name of the original brand.

    Ideas are usually composite entities, consiting of other, smaller idea. By decombining and re-combining, they become new, relevant, appealing.


  4. July 27, 2011

    Nice article Greg. My question to you is – Say I am involved in a domain like providing technological services, where ideas would not affect the consumer directly but would rather be concentrated on business innovation and structure. What would be good tracks to follow in forming the ‘great ideas’? I felt that the answer to this wasn’t very straightforward so inputs from your side are much appreciated.

  5. July 27, 2011


    Agree. Brian Arthur wrote at length about technologies as combinations. See here:


  6. July 27, 2011

    This is my first visit to your site, and I almost fell off my chair laughing after reading the first paragraph! I’ve known several people who have excellent ideas but don’t know how to implement them. My dad invented spray can paint but took it to a paint company who stole is idea. Seriously.

  7. July 27, 2011

    Thanks for visiting. Come again!

    – Greg

  8. July 30, 2011

    Good post, Greg. There are many trues in it. I especially like the statement that
    “A Good Idea Interfaces with Other Ideas”. We really quite often hear people say that only their ideas or positions matter which cannot be farther from truth.

  9. July 30, 2011

    Thanks Stan. Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

  10. July 31, 2011

    Well my first greatly effective innovation was just to take advantage of what Hambro Life did. They allowed my clients to switch their investment fund from the Managed Fund to Property, Equities or Cash. I became famous for developing a technique for deciding how to use this – my clients completely missed the 75% drop in the stock market and made a profit from every switch I made for them so gaining the reputation for claiming to be able to do the impossible – forecasting markets. That claim faded over time as my performance always beat the institution managed funds. I developed my ideas slowly but they always worked and before chartists came along I was already proving that markets have a momentum of their own that can be exploited.

    Another thing that I observed was that Home Loan repayments can jump up as inflation rises, yet people’s incomes are also rising and will catch up later. So I asked why do lenders not wait a bit for that to happen?

    Out of this idea came loads of research and contracts to research this idea. But there were always problems taht people put in the way. So I have had to persist and find answers to those issues. Now it forms a ground breaking book because all the increments added up. But I have not forgotten how it began and I look forward to starting my ball rolling with an incremental approach – taking a standard loan and just managing the payments to make it safe.

    Once the ball is rolling I have had thirty years to increment my thinking and note the openings that it will create for further innovation. But the basic idea is very simple. And the mathematics is even simpler – once you have found it. and the economic theory behind it to do with interest rates was tested by Ben Bernanke who showed where rate should be – in line with my (arithmetically equally simple) theory. But getting there was the problem. No one could afford the higher repayments, not even Prime loans. I take both of those things that as a good sign.

    I was always challenging my teachers at school and I was nearly always right when I did. They agreed. You have to get to the fundamentals to do that.

    I need a software programme to do the management and a good marketing man behind me to get the finance and to sell it. Any offers?


  11. July 31, 2011

    Thanks for sharing.

    If anyone wants to get in touch with Edward, I can pass a message along but won’t give out the e-mail address he left on the site.

    – Greg

  12. Murat permalink
    July 31, 2011

    Excellent article.

  13. July 31, 2011

    Tesekkur ederim.

    – Greg

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