The Myth of the Great Idea

These days, in an age of 20-something billionaires and an app for everything, we are more feverish for the “next big thing” than ever. In all circles of business from the creative end to the analytical end, everyone talks about ideas like they are mythical creatures that appear to those who hope for them the most.


Great ideas are a myth. What you should be looking for is great insight.

Everyone will agree that some ideas are better than others, and that a few rare gems are “game-changers.” But if you ask someone to define a great, disruptive idea, odds are they will say something like, “you’ll know it when you see it.”

That’s average-person code for “I have no idea.”

There are also plenty of discussions happening on the internet about effective ways to come up with an idea for a company or a product, people sharing methods and books about how to come up with product ideas or find inspiration.

I call bullshit.

If you hang around creative industries for a while, you will eventually graduate to the next level of idea mythology: it’s all about making, or trying lots of things, or getting shit done, or “shipping” in start-up lingo.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that psychology agrees with this level of the Great Idea Myth. Working on something will, indeed, get you farther than just talking about it. But that is true for shitty ideas as well.

The problem arises when the philosophy of Getting Things Done ignores what you’re doing, and whether you’re actually achieving anything in the long run. These people would have you believe that your Great Ideas are “in there somewhere” and you just have to find them.

That’s executive-person code for “I have no idea.”

If you directly ask these people why it is so important to be done as fast as possible, often nobody is sure what the benefit actually is, unless the benefit is obvious to everyone (in which case, it’s not a Great Anything).

After you have been disillusioned about the “idea” being the holy grail, and disillusioned about “doing shit” as the holy grail, you will undoubtedly move on to the next level:

“It’s not the idea, it’s all about execution.”

This is where it gets really fuzzy, because we start wrapping the Myth of the Great Idea in a new package: execution.

First of all, we have to get over the feeling that style is an idea. It’s not. A blue t-shirt and a red t-shirt are executions of the same idea. Most of the ideas we think about each day are merely a matter of style, not real change.

What we’re talking about here is quality. You might feel like a red t-shirt is “better” but not in the same way that cotton is a better t-shirt material than aluminum foil. (Unless…)

Execution is definitely important, but the definition of “execution” will vary from person to person. Is it the way it looks? Is it the timing of the launch? Is it the responsibility of the designers? The coders? The marketing team? Does the CEO have any effect on that at all?

Shit. Just when we thought “execution” was the key to a Great Thing, somebody has to show up ask what it actually is. (Hint: “execution” is a process, not an attribute of successful things.)

The truth is…

There is no such thing as a Great Idea. There are only Great Insights.

We actually tend to put the word “Idea” around the whole history of something being conceived, built, launched, successful and famous. WE want an idea like that! But really… that was lots of ideas based on a powerful discovery. An insight.

When Einstein discovered the Theory of Relativity, that wasn’t an idea. His insight was that everyone  — including himself —had certain assumptions about time, and the result was decades of new science.

Another insight might be that a certain combination of features creates a useful system, like the way a feedback loop creates motivation and direction within a game or a social network.

Another insight might be that symbols of value are more versatile than actual value, like the way we use money instead of trading crops and livestock. The result of that insight is the world economy (and how to abuse it!).

But the thing about insight is that it doesn’t happen randomly. Hope is not a factor. It happens to people who put themselves deep into a problem, people who spend valuable time observing and thinking about the way things work, people who deconstruct complexity, and people who assume nothing.

Stop looking for a Great Idea.

Start surrounding yourself with the information you need to discover some Great Insights.