You`ve Got to Teach Yourself to Spot a Good Idea

Good ideas are gems. Some are rare as the red diamonds of the Argyle Mine, which appear at a rate of 1 carat per 1 million tons of extracted ore and sell for $2 million / carat. Others are more common but also valauble. The trick, for gem miners and for creative miners, is to learn how to sift through the ore to find the good stuff.

Stephen Pressfield writes that good ideas have a feel to them. I agree in theory but the difficulty is learning the feeling. Here are a few things I have figured out on how to separate a good idea from a mediocre idea.


1. Good ideas tap into the human condition.

Some feelings and experiences are intrinsic to being human, like hating Mondays or loving free lunch. Psychologists and marketers have identified a few basic needs that drive human behavior such as belonging, love, identity, autonomy, hope, authenticity, and significance. You can do worse than comparing your idea to people’s basic needs. Though it sounds obsequious, always vet your idea from the audience’s point of view: “what’s in it for me?” That is the question they’re asking and you should too. Good ideas hit the gut.

What basic need does my idea address?


2. Good ideas are exact.

Good ideas start with specific concepts, not vague generalities. They provide tangible solutions to both emotional and market needs. An emotional need is the feeling, often fear, that drives your audience. A market need is a problem that needs to be addressed. My book on creativity, Two Percent, floundered until I stumbled on a specific question: Why can’t I get inspired anymore? Have I lost it? Once I had that question, everything fell into place.

What problem does my idea solve?


3. Good ideas create common ground.

Eventually, everyone gets beaten down by a bad boss or notices their neck sagging or gets tired of carrying around a digital device 24/7. Some life experiences are common enough to base assumptions on. I just named three; here are a couple more: the fear of taking home a new baby for the first time or the thrill of going to opening night. Good ideas touch something that connects with a life most people live.

How does my idea create common ground with the viewer/reader/user?


4. Good ideas are indigenous.

I helped a Japanese-American leader craft a book to improve the leadership skills of the leaders in his care. His material read like a dissertation. The concepts were solid but typical. One key concept repeatedly surfaced in the material: leadership can be improved. As I read it, I remembered the word kaizen, a post-World War II corporate concept that many credit with the resurrection of Japan. It is a compound word: the first symbol, 改, “kai,” means “to change, to correct;” the second symbol, 善, “zen,” means “good.”

Together, kaizen roughly means, “continuous correction and improvement.” I suggested a new title. Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader. For the cover, we used Japanese symbols to create striking images that helped the leaders remember the key message.

Good ideas don’t pander or play to an audience. They start from a personal and real place.

How is my idea authentic to my experience or that of my organization?


5. Good ideas embody their purpose.

A ministry wanted to raise awareness and further fund global mission partnerships to aid causes such as improved secondary education and an end to human trafficking. As the church leader I worked with spoke about the partnerships, he mentioned the spiritual connection he wanted to help people create with others around the world. His fingers interlocked as he spoke. His words and gestures reminded me of an image of fabric. I said the word “woven” to him. We expanded on it and the idea grew into a successful campaign that both illustrated and added to the ministry’s goals.

Every idea exists for a purpose – whether to sell a product or service or make the world a better place. Good ideas don’t sit on top of the purpose like icing, tasty and superfluous. They embody the purpose, adding meaning and vibrancy.

Can you look at your idea without annotations and intuitively get its meaning?


6. Good ideas usually begin as mediocre ideas.

One of the biggest reasons we miss good ideas is that a lot of them start out humble.

For example, a good idea can feel like it’s been done before. But don’t let it fool you. This sense of familiarity is not a negative. It is in fact a sign that it’s a good idea. Most good ideas don’t appear whole cloth (though this occasionally happens) but in slow stages, first as slight variations on known themes and then, as they develop, something new.

Good ideas are like newborn babies. They are fragile, though tough. They need cleaning up. The beauty is in its birth but also in the potential it represents. As the mother you know what dream the idea may become, that it is totally dependent, that it takes time to develop and that some day it will be incredible.

If you’re stuck, review your notes. Is there something in them worth expanding?


7. Good ideas are deceiving.

Sometimes I doubt that the idea I’ve spotted is any good. Most of us are trained to self-inhibit; we don’t know what it’s like to explore an idea because as soon as we find a halfway decent one we conjure up criticisms from phantoms. To avoid self-flagellation we immediately polish our raw ore into a finished product.

Since, as Hemingway notes, all first drafts are s**t, this is like the proverbial “polishing a turd.” Resist the polishing temptation, which prevents us from fully realizing our good idea. When the sparkle first appears, keep going.

Have you dug deep enough on your idea?


8. Good ideas are hard to capture.

Sometimes I’ll have a good idea and then lose it. The reason is that I almost always find good ideas in inconvenient places.

When you’ve spotted a good idea, avoid the temptation to capture it later. For a moment, you’ll marvel at yourself for spotting it, and you will think, oh, I need to write that down. And then your mind will float back to a task. If you don’t do something about the good idea immediately, chances are it will locate a more affable host.

And yes, sometimes the tyranny of the task is monumentous – trust me, I have four kids. I know. Yet I try as best as possible to cage the idea anyway. Because I’ve learned that if I don’t write it down, I will lose it.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).