It happened again this week. Multiple times in fact. Someone had a Great Idea*. Some of them were pretty good ideas, I have to admit. I am not sure I personally would have called any of them Great, but to each their own. But to be honest, I am growing tired of Great Ideas. They bring out the cranky old woman in me. Oh, you’ve got a Great Idea? Stand in line. I’ve had more Great Ideas than you’ve had hot dinners. I’ve got Great Ideas that are older than your shoes.
You get the idea.
The thing about Great Ideas is they tend to evaporate under scrutiny. Or at least their owners’ enthusiasm seems to evaporate under scrutiny. It makes sense. As long as a Great Idea stays an idea it can stay great. Great Ideas are like falling in love, giving a child a Christmas puppy or having a baby. It seems like such a Great Idea in the moment. Then it’s 2 am and someone is crying and there is pee on the floor.
The real art in creating a healthy relationship, training a well-behaved dog and raising a child who is a delight to be around does not lie in meeting the right stranger on a crowded dance floor or tying a bow around a puppy’s collar. The real art lies in the daily work, in the minute-to-minute compromises and conflicts and in learning what to say yes to and what to say no to and what to ignore.
The same goes for a Great Idea. Everyone loves it when it is an idea and still as that Great Idea smell. But before it can become a reality, it needs to become a plan. Plans are, well, not Great maybe, but at least Okay. But once the plan is done, it still needs to be implemented and that means budgets and timelines and to-do lists and editing and making corrections and figuring out where the money is coming from. And who loves those? The same people who love wiping up dog pee, that’s who. No one. But if you really love an idea (or puppy or child or stranger from the dance floor) that’s what you do, because that’s what it takes.
People who announce to the world they have a Great Idea usually bestow it on us mere mortals as if it were a gift. Questions about implementation are waved off as mere details. Distractions. Something for the lackeys to worry about.
If you really want to see this in action, tell people you are a writer or worse yet, a book editor. People will be so proud to tell you they have a book inside them, maybe two. They just haven’t gotten around to getting it down on paper yet, reducing the bloody, exhausting, exhilarating work of writing to mere transcription. The truth is, most people have a book in them. Few people are willing to face the blank page or screen day after day until it is out of them.
The love affair with Great Ideas not only devalues the work and talent and craft of those who struggle to turn ideas into plans and then work those plans, it also cheats the idea-haver out of the astounding and magical experience of seeing that idea come to life, detail by detail.
The underlying fear in letting Great Ideas become plans is that we might find out they were not so great after all. That means we are not really a good enough writer or artist or musician or dog owner or parent or romantic partner or idea-haver. We aren’t special. We are just like everyone else.
The truth is far more complex. Maybe the idea wasn’t so great; it just wasn’t meant to be. Good riddance. Maybe that good idea needed a better plan. Maybe it needed more input from other folks. Maybe the time wasn’t right. Maybe it needed someone else’s good idea to move it along. No matter what, those Great Ideas are taking up brain space a new idea can use. Get them out, let them grow or fail and move on.
Ze Frank has a wonderful little video about this. It’s one of those things I come back to again and again. Like much of Ze’s work, it is funny and a bit absurd and has some coarse language. Below the video he elaborates in a much more serious way.
I am not immune to this love of Great Ideas. Just this week I dreamt a short story. Beginning, middle and end. In fact the ending was so shocking, I woke up exclaiming “Oh my God!” I told a few people I’d had a Great Idea for a story. Story and book ideas almost never come to me in my dreams and let me tell you, it is an amazing thing to have happen to you. Later that day, I could feel the dream fade, so I started to jot things down. As I did so, problems started to pop up and the idea was becoming less great. Was the dog a harbinger or a victim? Were the four young people just friends, or was there a romance there? How did the high-efficiency washing machine end up in the woods?
It was a bit deflating, writing it all down. I had to admit it was not a Great Idea anymore. It was still intriguing and I have my notes and I keep playing with it. I have no doubt that soon I will be working on it. I can’t wait to see what I figure out about that washing machine.
*I capitalized Great Idea because in most cases you could hear the capital letters. And in some cases there was a short dramatic pause, as if the speaker was waiting for a trumpet fanfare.