The Myth of the Great Idea

October 10th, 2005 - 50 Comments

There’s a common and weird conception in this country of The Great Idea.

This is the idea of PageRank, a graphical user interface, or sticky notes. Huge successes, right?

Sure. But for 99% of people, The Great Idea is a big fat myth.

At the beginning of 2004, a few friends came over to get some advice. They wanted An Idea to start a company around. Cool, I thought, and we started brainstorming. But I soon realized that while they said they were looking for An Idea, they were really looking for an excuse not to do anything, to remain where they were and grind their wheels.

I’m not into BS so I told them as much. This is what I told them (fade to black with a pipe in my mouth)…

* * *

The myth of The Great Idea is a dangerous one. It makes you constantly search and search for something that you’ll probably never find. My friends, for example, are still searching, and it’s two years later. How many of you know an older person (maybe a parent?) who is always tinkering and muttering about the Great Idea he wants to find?

Success almost never comes from a mind-blowing idea, so sitting around trying to find one is a waste of time. Success comes from a basic idea executed amazingly well. Ideas are rarely found by thinking. They’re found by doing. I didn’t come up with the idea of IWillTeachYouToBeRich one night, staring out at the beach through a rain-drenched window. I thought of it after getting a $2,000 scholarship check, investing it in the stock market, and losing half of it immediately. (And really, is the idea of a personal-finance site really that compelling of an idea?) I’ll answer my own question: No!

It’s all in the execution.

So The Great Idea is a myth. Now what?
Ok, you know you want to do something entrepreneurial. Maybe you want to write a book. Maybe you’re good at helping underprivileged children, and really enjoy it, but aren’t sure what to do with that. Or maybe you are amazing at Etch-A-Sketch drawing. Sounds good, but you don’t have the Big Idea yet. So what! Most people don’t. But you can do better than most people because you’ll stop searching and start doing.

These are the few steps that have worked for me and some of my entrepreneur friends. Identify a broad, high-level goal. It might be an industry (“I want to do something in fashion”), it might be a lifestyle (“I want to have a flexible schedule”), it might be some kind of financial outcome, etc.

Now you have the top of the funnel. Now, write down the things you like and the things you don’t like. Be brutally honest. I’ve been surprised how few people do this. I wrote down things like “I like talking to people” and “I hate Excel.”

Next, narrow the funnel down by identifying opportunities that will open up more doors in the right area. For example, if you want to get involved in fashion, you probably don’t want to work as an administrative assistant. Two years after doing that, what will you have to show for it? Will you be any closer to your broad goal? On the other hand, if you intern at a fashion company, or even start a simple blog about fashion, in a few months, you will have created more opportunities for you in the right area. (Obviously, these are examples; I can’t give you one-on-one advice in this article. For that, email me.)

In other words, if you want to be in the music business, you don’t start working at a music store. That won’t give you a leg up on any jackass who can walk in off the street and do it. Avoid jobs/projects/opportunities that lead to dead ends. Instead, find opportunities that open more doors in the right direction.

A couple more things: It takes multiple steps to reach a goal. It sounds obvious, but I know so many people who are frustrated that they can’t send one email and become a sports agent. Being entrepreneurial, having a disproportionate impact, takes a lot of steps that don’t necessarily have a clear payoff. I don’t want to belabor the point. Just think about how this relates to you.

Also, eliminating choices is as important as finding ones that are interesting. I have a friend who wanted to be an investment banker because, in her words, it’s glamorous, prestigious, and there are lots of smart people. She did an internship and realized she hated it. Great! Internships are your friend; they’re like free trials at a company. Chalk that one up to the now-I-know-I-don’t-like-that category.

And now it’s time to start doing. Even though you may not have a sense of exactly what you want to do, you’ve found some of the right people you want to talk to. If you want to start a dog-food company (or whatever), you don’t have to have contacts at Kibbles. Think laterally–do you know anyone who runs a retail business? Email them and take them out to lunch. Know pet owners? Go over and find out what their problems are and what they’d want from a new product. You’ll be surprised after talking to 10 people–I guarantee this. People love others who are eager to learn and full of energy. They’ll offer you help with connections, ideas, and maybe even resources.

The idea will come. It may be something as prosaic as “let’s do photos online!” (Flickr, acquired by Yahoo) or “let’s build a social network–for college kids!!” (The Facebook, multi-million-dollar VC-funded startup). It’s not about The Idea. It’s about the process that gets you there and the people around you.

And once you start doing all these things, you’ll get closer and closer to your end game–even if you didn’t know what it was when you started.

* * *

Back to The Great Idea. The whole reason it’s such a terrible way to think about personal entrepreneurship is that it’s a veiled excuse to get not get anything done: “Oh, I’m waiting around for an idea” is the most foolish thing anyone can say. The myth of the Great Idea is a great way to think yourself into oblivion and failure.

Look, at our age, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing what we want to ultimately end up doing. Let me say that again: Stop feeling guilty that you don’t know exactly what you want to do! But I think there’s something entirely wrong with not actively trying to find out exactly what we do want.

Trying, not waiting.

Experimenting, not “thinking about it.”

Give it a shot. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.

(See my other articles on personal entrepreneurship.)

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50 Comments

 

Comments

  1. Compelling article, thanks. So true, most people who talk this way generally are wanting to make maximal bucks with minimal effort. This thinking leads to the idea that becoming rich is just a matter of chance. Whoever just happens to get the Great Idea gets rich.

    By the way, I already had a Great Idea, which I’m going to implement very soon (maybe today). It involves a web page about “Cooking with Peeps.” You know, Peeps, those cute marshmallow chicks sold at Easter time. This is an overlooked delicacy in the culinary world. Do you have any VC contacts? :)

  2. Ooh, I love Peeps!

    Ramit, some of your points in this article brought to mind another one I read that’s very complementary. It’s called “How to Get Any Project Up and Running” and you can find it at http://www.markforster.net/index.php?view=56 .

    I’m really looking forward to this category/series!

  3. Thanx for the insight. It will be very useful for me.

  4. THANK YOU for this article. I hate my current job; I am a) sticking with it for now cuz it will get me where I need to be and b) working on other steps on the side…your article gives me reason to continue rather than end it all now. PS I am reading your blog at work ;)

  5. The folks who ask their friends for help coming up with an idea remind me of the people back in the DotCom days who’d run out, collect funding for a web business, hire employees, negotiate “strategic partnerships” and then, six months into the project, think “now we need some _content_”. Cart before the horse, much?

    If you expose yourself to the world you want to work in, the great ideas will come to you, as will the werewithal to do something useful about them…you don’t have to chase them down, just pay attention when they start beating you about the head. Deciding to start an idea business before you have an idea is just begging for failure, because even if you do come up with ideas that way, they’re much less likely to be related to solving real people’s real problems…which is what new businesses have to be really good at in order to survive and prosper.

  6. Ramit, Great point! I find one of the biggest things holding many entrepreneurs back is overvaluing ideas. Few people make a living selling ideas. Selling products or services as you mention is probably a more reliable road to wealth.

    Doug, You serious about the Peeps? I’m sure the VCs will be knocking at your door. Just don’t feed them until they give you money.

  7. Great article! Let me just add that you’re never too old to start looking for what you want, also you’re never too young to find it. If you never find, well at least you get to have fun trying. I am currently embarking on my fourth career after finding the others not to my tastes.

  8. If you liked this article, you may also enjoy Paul Graham’s article on Ideas for Startups.

  9. People that sit down at try to come up with ideas are doomed to fail. Those who have good ideas as a result of reading and thinking and later think “Hey, I could turn this into a good idea” are more likely to succeed.

  10. Interesting article.

    There are so many opportunities out there for taking existing ideas and doing them better, particularly when it comes to software development.

    Like you, I hate Excel. I’d pay good money for a better version of Excel, and never mind the next big idea.

  11. Excellent advice there my friend!! I tire of people who talk, talk, talk and not do, do, do. LOL!

    I’ve been inspired to write a book on PDAs (PocketPCs) based on all of the tech support scenarios I’ve encountered with my wonderful users from around the world. I will do it, and it will be finished in 2006; otherwise I will lose respect for myself.

    Happy New Year and all the best in 2006-forever. :-)
    – Max

  12. Great text. Simply great.

  13. Interesting article. I just want to add that there are plenty of ideas but only few are great. You’ll know whether it’s great or not only after trying.

  14. “Like you, I hate Excel. I’d pay good money for a better version of Excel, and never mind the next big idea.”

    Ever heard of openoffice.org?

  15. Google is a prime example of what you are talking about. They didnt invent the search engine, or web mail or most of the other services they offer they just do everything exceedingly better than the competitors

  16. Great article. I think there is definately value in working in a field you love, actively looking for problems and possible commercial solutions (Paul Graham has written an essay on this). But you are absolutely right. Sitting around and waiting for the muse to hit you with a million-dollar thunder bolt idea is a ticket to nowhere.

    Thanks!

  17. I do agree with you. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination. Also, you have to take the first step to go on a journey. Many people worry too much about where they want to go and end up going nowhere.

    It’s always better to take the first step and then adjust on the way. It’s always more fun that way!

  18. Execellent reflection on success! I’m a person who won’t take risks but after reading this article i realized that its all about minimizing risk and not about starting something without risk because whatever you do, there’s risk and it is only in the process of doing and executing your ideas that you eliminate those risk and make your dreams into reality!

    Thanks again!

  19. Great advice, but I will still be thinking about the next “Big Idea”! Although it should be more of a hobby. I agree that it all about action…thanks for the post.

  20. Great post! Great blog for that matter! I run into this situation all the time when people who are not entreprenuers hear that I am one (as well as go to school for entrepreneurship). Execution is what makes an entrepreneur, they make things happen regardless of the circumstances.

  21. very nice article. The are some many million dollar “idea” man that it’s so easy to follow the myth (me too). :)

  22. Wonderful article! You’ve managed to put into clear words the muffled stuff swimming around my head passing for ideas or knowledge or intuition or whatever.

    Who hasn’t thought about what it would be like to have THE IDEA? To succeed? Why wasn’t I as (smart, lucky) as Bill Gates? What’s he got that I ain’t got?

    Too many people complain that they’d be successful were it not for corruption or nepotism -or lack thereof ;) – or any number of other impediments that prevent their own ideas from shining through. Yet they don’t do anything because they don’t want to start and fail. So … if you don’t even think you can do it, who’s going to think that? Ok, what do you want to do? Put in other words, what don’t you want to do?

    I now think I know what I want to do. And I’m actually doing it. A small detail of making a living from it still eludes me but this doesn’t deter me. If nothing else, it will be best hobby I’ve ever had.

  23. You have cleared my cobwebs of complexity with your hands-on simplicity. Thank you.

  24. here, you only learned what not to do…. if you asked Edison, he’d tell you that he learn 9 millioon ways how not to make a light buld.

    People become successful by consistently trying. If you tried once and became “Gates.” than you would not have learned a thing.

  25. couldnt agree more, you will never find an idea to which everyone thinks is a great idea..there would always be a bunch of smart people who agree and disagree on the same idea..i just want to reaffirm what you said by citing an example ..you must have heard of the guy called alex tew who set up milliondollarhomepage.com .. there are two things that stand out 1) the idea is the dumbest ever 2) when he sold something like 1000$ word of ads, he invested the whole money into a press release ..which made the whole thing run off … ..i think anyone else would have just put the 1000$s in their pocket without reinvesting it .. the bottom line is how strongly you will push your idea to see it succeed

  26. “Trying, not waiting”

    You say do and then you say try. Which is it?

    Haven’t you heard “There is no try?”

    You do or you do not.

    Look around. See something on the floor, the table, or the desk?

    Good. Now, try to pick it up…

    And you have failed, danielson!

    There is no try. You do or you do not.

    The concept of TRIAL implies ERROR.

    Error can only be measured in relation to a standard.

    A standard is derived from statistical methods — averaging.

    For instance, a bunch of kids take a test. The scores vary.

    The teacher takes each score and plots them on a graph.

    Now the teacher wants to see the trend in the data.

    Although each and every person has unique circumstances, teacher wants to abstract them into a GROUP BEHAVIOR.

    So teacher looks at the general trend of the points and fits a curve to them.

    This is simple regression analysis, which is all of statistics really.

    Now the teacher can use the formula of this line or curve to predict what is going to happen.

    However, it is only going to work on the group level.

    What teacher is brave enough to say that they know how each individual is going to perform?

    They don’t know this. Statistics doesn’t give us that kind of power.

    Why? You can’t put apples in the machine and expect oranges to come out the other end.

    Apples in, apples out. Oranges in, oranges out.

    Group prediction in, Group prediction out. Individual prediction??

    How can we predict what an individual is going to do?

    There is always the person on TV saying, “I can’t believe Bob killed Sue. I mean, he couldn’t harm a fly.”

    Yet Bob killed Sue! Who could PREDICT such a thing?

    When you look into quantum mechanics you see the same thing happening…

    On the macroscopic level (rigid bodies), we find that Newtonian physics work out just fine.

    But go into the subatomic realm and things get very weird.

    Whereas we can predict the trajectory of a chair falling off a building, we cannot do the same with a subatomic particle.

    What we find is that we can only speak in probabilistic terms.

    We can say “If I put the detection device here, the chances are 1 in 1,000 that a particle is going to strike it.”

    We can’t say WHICH particle, but only A PARTICLE, and PERHAPS.

    Bringing it back on point — Try! Try! Try! What do you mean by that word?

    Do you have THE standard? THE correct model to measure against?

    Where is that magical line of yours? I would like to see it sometime.

    If you don’t have that, what becomes of TRY?
    Where is your ERROR?

  27. I must say it’s really shocking for me to read something so close to what I have been thinking and discovering with trial-and-error over time. You do really have a point and I couldn’t agree more with you. Doing, not thinking. Although I am 20, I have always liked people with that certain “freedom” in their thought, typical of entrepreneurs. And I must say that all of the successful individuals from that category shared the same denominator: they kept at it. Being creative and having lots of ideas is good, until it blocks you from actually fully developing something. That’s what I learned and you make it all very clear in this article. And I congratulate to you for the incredibly interesting blog, in general!

  28. Part of the problem is that the press tends to write articles that fit into a mold like “great idea leads to fotune” or “rags to riches”. Readers eat it up (plus writers are readers too), and everyone confirms their biases.

    Each of these fairy tales downplays hard work, timing and luck (where luck is shorthand for factors beyond control or not perceived or not understood.)

    On projects that I have worked on at startups that actually contained a reasonably great idea, most of the time and effort was spent on mundane matters like configuring, testing, assembling, and eliminating operational glitches.

    Another aspect… Many “great ideas” look that way in retrospect after all the competing ideas that fill the same need have faded from memory. Some competing ideas come out during the initial economic bubble surrounding a new technology area, die out, and are reinvented later. For instance, many inventions for variations in engine design for cars occurred when there were a hundred automobile companies and were dropped during the consolidation phase of the industry. Some of those designs returned decades later. Or the remarkable story about how 9 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, there was an inventor (French, IIRC) experimenting with jet engines (!), but the work was eventually dropped only to restart many decades later.

  29. I am inspired……….and for that I thank you

  30. Thanks for the ass-kicking. Now I feel worse!

  31. I am one of those who’s been trying to look for that so-called great idea. And I have never gotten around to doing anything. You give some good advice. Thanks for inspiring me to do some soul-searching.

  32. Some “great ideas” are born of failure. Take Lewis Edson Waterman (Ramit, you’ll like this one).

    Waterman was a salesman who one day had a fountain pen bleed its whole reservoir of ink all over the contract for a deal he ad just clinched. Needless to say, he was pissed.

    This failure spurred him to invent a fountain pen that wouldn’t leak, and after a good long time of tinkering, he succeeded in producing a fountain pen with precisely regulated ink flow. The secret he discovered in his tinkering was that air needed to flow into the reservoir as the ink flowed out, and these amounts needed to be in perfect balance.

    The pen he made worked so well that people began asking him to make one for them. Eventually, he had a major manufacturing business on his hands. Waterman pens are fairly legendary.

    But the company did not come into existence through a great idea. It was personal annoyance and doing something about it.

  33. I am inspired……….and for that I thank you

    rahul

  34. I tell people that great ideas aren’t born, their built.

  35. I’ve been really exicited w/ a business idea but did not know how to go about it.The article has been so useful.It pushed me to get started. :) many thanks

  36. i always seem to get ideas when i least expect it and i have had lots of people interested but i’m always held back by my parents because i’m too young. Does that matter?

  37. This is an incredible post, Ramit!

    (ps I think I was a bit harsh on you for the Stupid Frat Boy biz ideas in a comment I made.. I take it all back after reading this post =)

    It’s also perfect timing since I’m looking to get involved in a new field right now. (microfinance, actually.. which is how I came across your blog just now to begin with!)

  38. Great article. Now, if I could just figure out what I want to do….

    By the way, I hate Excel. (Go, Microsoft, go! (I own some shares ;)))

  39. So true. It’s funny when I hear someone say, “Don’t tell anyone about this idea!” I say to them, “It takes a LOT OF EFFORT to make any idea come to fruition! And because ideas take so much effort, it really won’t be stolen!” So, go ahead and tell everyone, eventually, with EFFORT you can make an idea become a success! And what does EFFORT mean? It means, if you have a full-time job, working in your “off” hours! There are more ideas than successes. I wonder why that is true? :)

  40. First of all, I liked this article. Second of all, myself and most of your readers really enjoy your writing style. Keep it up!

    The “Great Idea” concept is just like anything else in this world. Only a small percentage of times it “works”. And yes, you’re right about putting work into it.. many people feel as if magical things happen with minimal effort. That’s so not the case.

    However, many “Great Ideas” do indeed happen accidentally without crazy well-thought-out plans.. they just happen via the cause-and-effect method.

    “Wow, I did this site, and now I’m snow-balling into a big venture, etc”… many times people do not have a pre-conceived plan, it just happens out of passion and desire.

    You’d be surprised how often things get affected by the idea virus. If you have the right idea at the right time and in the right place, things just happen naturally.

    Of course, this is not the norm.

    Many individuals compare themselves to others, thinking this is the “de facto standard” in the world. But they just don’t understand the uniqueness and intricacies as to why things happen in this world.

    I guess it boils down to “figuring the world out”. Sometimes seemingly great ideas become utter failures. And other times brilliant accidents turn into multi-million dollar success-stories. It’s all about passion in my opinion. Win or lose, that is what counts. Keep passionately trying and eventually you’ll financially succeed. Regardless, you’ll be satisfied because it means something. Not just because it has up-side potential.

    Peace everyone! Happy 2007!

  41. Nice post, you’re right on. I recently did a post on a similar subject exclaiming that there is no “perfect” time or way to launch a startup.

    Just start from wherever you are with whatever you’ve got.

  42. I found the correct URL for the article mentioned in comment 2.

    How to Get Any Project Up and Running

  43. Wow. Hits so close to home for me. I made a huge mistake early on, leaping into a career that I thought would free up my time to do what I really wanted to do. It was a very bad, roundabout way of doing things that didn’t work out, but I’m now in a job related to my field, surrounded by people who help me improve my skills everyday. This was great reinforcement that I’m on the right track, and I need to stay there.

  44. Hey, thanks for the article. You know, I was searching for this type of insperation a year ago. Because at one time i did not know what i wanted to do in life. I’ve always find interest in creating, but just did not know what to become. Than, i realize just go and go, and the experience will take you there (im still going). Anyways, I have this idea that i’ve been working on. It was not an idea i was searching for, it just happened to come to me after running into a problem. I need to know, should i continue with this idea even if its not part of my field? thanks

  45. Very true. I’ve been a part of three start-up companies. One was a dead end in terms of profit-per-time and we killed it pretty quickly. However, just starting the business resulted in lots of new information and experience. I knew how to register a company with the state. I knew how to file a DBA. Etc…

    The second company came about from a BIG IDEA. In truth, it still probably is a big idea, but we made it into something too big. The execution wasn’t possible with the resources we had. This went on for two years until we finally folded the corp. However, along the way I learned vast amounts of knowledge about how a start-up works. I opened doors and met informative and powerful people. I learned how to set realistic goals. Etc…

    My third company came not from a big idea, but from a need I saw. I started it just on a whim, and not really thinking it through. It was just the act of doing it that really got me started. If I had thought about it too much, I probably would have talked myself out of it. Instead, a year later, I’m profiting 2 grand a month (not including taxes).

    So looking back, just the act of doing is probably the biggest reason for any kind of success. Good article.

  46. I like your advice, and I’ve been enjoying your other posts. I especially like it when you call people stuff like, “jackass,” hahahaha… Well, in this particular post about the big idea, I agree, but I think that we must all do as Socrates did. Keep the idea of a big idea floating around in your mind, but still do other important things in your life. Then one day, you may have a Eureka! moment, where your big idea hits you like a hand hitting a mosquito. If you didn’t think you wanted the big idea in the first place, you would’ve just let it slip by when it did come. But of course, keep moving towards your goals, always.

  47. Have an idea in my mind for years, sure of its success; but still not able to put it to reality; feel as if i am too lethargic; don’t know how to make a beginning; advise.

  48. Does Jim Collins (author of Built to Last) know you’re stealing his concepts? The “Clock Building and not Time Telling” concept was coined in his 2002 book. I don’t see a reference his work here.

    I notice that alot of Ramit’s blogging is either linking to other’s thoughts or regurgitating other’s work.

    • I have no idea what those concepts are, but if they’re similar, good. People think of good ideas at the same time all the time.

  49. Read Built To Last (Successful Habits of Visionary Companies). The concept is that ONE of the interesting facts of companies that have succeeded past their original founder(s) is that they did not begin from a great idea or concept. An example is HP…they had a bowling foul line indicator as one of their early “products”.