Broken Light Bulb designed by Gregory Sujkowski from the Noun Project

Broken Light Bulb designed by Gregory Sujkowski from the Noun Project

Despite what we are often led to believe in popular media, even geniuses make mistakes and have bad ideas. Some of the most brilliant minds in history have often pursued bad ideas to the fullest. A classic example being Thomas Edison, who famously quipped: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Over on his blog, investor and writer Paul Graham explains the reason even smart people have bad ideas:

The biggest cause of bad ideas is the still life effect: you come up with a random idea, plunge into it, and then at each point (a day, a week, a month) feel you’ve put so much time into it that this must be the idea.

How do we fix that? I don’t think we should discard plunging. Plunging into an idea is a good thing. The solution is at the other end: to realize that having invested time in something doesn’t make it good.

…Plunge in, by all means, but remember later to look at your idea in the harsh light of morning

We can learn from both Graham’s personal example and Edison’s famous quip: it’s easy to get stuck on one idea, feeling as though it’s “the” idea we have to run with. Unfortunately when that happens we limit our ability to see just how flawed that one idea may be, ensuring we don’t uncover even better ideas.

Fortunately Edison and Graham both give us an excellent example of what we should instead be doing when we feel like an idea might not be working out: keep moving, even if that means running over 9,999 more ideas. You don’t have to stick with just one idea, in-fact you’re better off doing exactly the opposite.

Be sure to read Graham’s full write-up and learn from his experience as an artist and investor right here.

  • chuckbluz

    Edison’s “10,000 ideas” quote is about his attempts to perfect the light bulb and speaks more to his persistence and experimental process (fail fast, fail often), resulting in “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Better examples of his “bad ideas” is his dogged view that DC was the optimal power distribution system, or that poured concrete houses were the solution to housing problems in the 1920s.

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