The Trajectory of Great Ideas

One day you wake up and realize you have a great idea.

You tell people about it. Not everyone gets it. The reason it’s a great idea is because no one’s thought of it before.

But it means other people’s first response to your great idea may be confusion. And people deal with confusion by dismissing whatever they don’t understand.

“That’s a dumb idea. It will never work.”

Here’s the first test of a great idea: Will you keep believing in it when other people tell you it’s a bad idea?

If you can, you’ve started down the path of defending your great idea. Which is both the path to success and where the seeds of deeply held bad ideas are planted.

With grit and effort you convince your boss, coworkers, friends, family, investors, and customers that your idea actually is great. You put everything you have into this idea and promoting its usefulness. It’s one of the hardest things you’ve ever done.

And the idea is great, so it works.

You get the results you want.

Your product works.

Your analysis was right.

Your predictions come true.

You overcame doubters and solved a problem. You’re now known as the person with the great idea.

It feels awesome.

That’s when things start to change.

Feeling awesome attract attention from people who want a piece of that same feeling.

They start emulating your great idea.

First they copy it directly. The hole that your great idea promised to fill now has others shoveling dirt into it. Competition – from coworkers, other companies, or other investors – arrives.

Then competitors add their own style and ingenuity to your great idea. The problem you solved has more layers than you first realized. It’s like you discovered a beautiful beach to lay on, but other people didn’t just follow you and lay down themselves; they built condos and restaurants while you were watching the sunset.

Initial success gives you optimism in your own skills, which causes you to let your guard down and ignore what’s happening.

Soon your great idea loses its appeal. Not because it’s wrong, but because it was so right that other people who copied and then built upon your idea chase out the uniqueness that once made it great.

You could recognize what happened, and find a new problem to solve, or a better way to solve the original problem.

But you remember how much risk you took and sweat you gave to fight for this great idea. You put so much work into the great idea that it’s become an inseparable part of your identity. You never imagined your great idea had a shelf life: When you first realized you had a great idea you extrapolated its rewards in your mind into the indefinite future, because that felt good.

People begin telling you your great idea doesn’t work anymore. They’re right, but you remember the successful strategy when they first questioned your great idea: Fight. Defend. Push. Convince.

This is natural to you. Anyone whose idea was so unique and powerful that others followed and exploited its advantage is adept at fighting naysayers. They wouldn’t make it this far if they weren’t.

Now the same trait that made you push ahead when no one believed in your great idea makes you oblivious to that great idea’s demise. In the early days of your great idea you looked at naysayers and thought, “They don’t get it. They don’t see it. The only look at the data they want to be accurate because it confirms what they already believe.” Then the world changed – it always does – but you kept that mentality of conviction and defense. Patience has turned to stubbornness. And now you are the proud owner of a bad idea.

You still don’t know it. You may not ever admit it. Finding great ideas requires conviction, but survival requires humility and adaptation. These things can conflict.

Sears. Blockbuster. Nokia. AOL. Each started with a great idea that few could comprehend, and clung to it with conviction as they themselves became blind to new ideas that they couldn’t comprehend.

This is part of why competitive advantages die:

“Being right is the enemy of staying right because it leads you to forget the way the world works.” – Jason Zweig. Buddhism has a concept called beginner’s mind, which is an active openness to trying new things and studying new ideas, unburdened by past preconceptions, like a beginner would. Knowing you have a competitive advantage is often the enemy of beginner’s mind, because doing well reduces the incentive to explore other ideas, especially when those ideas conflict with your proven strategy. Which is dangerous. Being locked into a single view is fatal in an economy where reversion to the mean and competition constantly dismantles old strategies.

People talk about traits that make good investors and good business leaders. They’re usually skills that push you in the same direction: Intelligence and patience, creativity and ingenuity, leadership and charisma. But lasting results often requires traits that are polar opposite to each other, like unwavering conviction and the ability to move on from an idea when its time is up. “Strong beliefs, weakly held,” the saying goes. Easier said than done.