Why We're Blind To Our Best IdeasRelevant topics Archive, Strategy
Ideas. They are the rocket fuel behind many of life’s best decisions. And some of the worst.
Whether you’re an entrepreneur in search of fruitful business avenues, a storyteller pondering on a thought-provoking new narrative, or just a tourist contemplating what new things to do for holiday. For many of these decisions, we tend to turn inside for answers. In a very real way, we’re internally brainstorming with ourselves, trying to wrap our hands around these pearls of wisdom we call ideas.
Initial ideas differ widely in their vividness and concreteness. We tend to love vivid ideas. The entrepreneur could suddenly connect the dots between a brand-new technology and a target market that has a need that just screams to be met. The writer can conjure entire plotlines out of thin air in a matter of seconds, beginning, middle and end. And the tourist may suddenly decide to go bungee jumping in the crater of a sleeping volcano – I know I did.
But do these sudden crystal-clear notions always provide the best path to go forward? You may be able to think of some of your own initially brilliant ideas that turned out to be lukewarm at best – I know I do.
And what about those other ideas that were not fully crystalized yet, causing you to throw them out of the window? Of course, the million-dollar question is: how many of those prematurely discarded ideas would have turned out to be brilliant?
Countless of studies have been done on how individuals evaluate the creativity of their final ideas. But the psychology behind how we evaluate and build upon the initial figments of those ideas during the creative process itself has rarely been studied.
The idea paradox
Justin Berg is an organizational psychologist at Stanford University who has devoted his academic career to understanding the processes behind creativity. In his latest study, he explored how people evaluate during the creative process, and how they use these evaluations in deciding which creative routes should be discarded and which ones should be built upon further.
In five studies, he somewhat alarmingly concludes that, while we’re quite adapt at developing good ideas, we’re structurally blind to our very best ideas. In other words: we’re good at quickly weeding out what’s bad, but we’re terrible at forecasting which initial hunch will turn out to be the best.
The reason behind this idea paradox is that, during idea generation, we strongly favor the early bits and pieces that are most concrete, easy to imagine, easy to implement. While these criteria are certainly steppingstones to good ideas, they are rarely pave the way for brilliance. Berg states: “Creators may reject many of their best initial ideas without ever knowing it. To avoid this fate, creators may need to remember that their favorite initial idea is probably not their best idea.”
Why second-best leads to perfection
Berg discovered an interesting law: the ideas that were rated second best in the early phase would actually become the best ideas in the final phase – in case it’s lucky enough to actually be developed into a full-fledged idea.
This law illustrates the importance of not prematurely discarding potentially good ideas for a lack of concreteness. If you have the time to mentally pickaxe abstract potential into something a bit more concrete, your chances of reaching outstanding creativity will greatly improve. However, this brings us to the single most important caveat: time.
The perfect idea is a matter of time
The study underlines a piece of wisdom many people in the business of creativity have learned the hard way: our brains are remarkably quick in thinking of something satisfactory, but it takes many painstaking extra hours to achieve something that is truly brilliant.
Berg argues that, if pressed for time, your best strategy is to go with your first instinct in selecting which initial idea to pursue. This is your quickest path to a moderately creative final idea. But if you want to achieve greatness and have time on your hands, it would be wise to resist the allure of concrete initial ideas. Instead, similar to the ugly duckling growing into a beautiful swan, your best ideas are hidden in the ones that emerge frail, vague and shapeless.
take home points
- Second best rated ideas are usually the ones that become the best ideas once fully thought out. Do not discard ideas that lack concreteness.
- If you have time on your hands, try to think through those ideas that lack concreteness.