What is an idea?

We need a new definition of “idea,” one that makes you think about how ideas create change.

If you want to conceive and work with ideas, you need to know what an idea is. But most of the definitions available to you are useless. Here’s Merriam-Webster:

idea, noun.

1: a formulated thought or opinion
2: whatever is known or supposed about something
3: the central meaning or chief end of a particular action or situation
4a: a plan for action
b: a standard of perfection
c: a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which existing things are imperfect representations
5a: an entity (such as a thought, concept, sensation, or image) actually or potentially present to consciousness
b: an indefinite or unformed conception

This won’t help you understand if you actually have an idea, or how to come up with one.

Wikipedia says:

In common usage and in philosophyideas are abstractconcepts.[1] Also in philosophy, ideas can also be mental representational images of some object. Many philosophers have considered ideas to be a fundamental ontological category of being. The capacity to create and understand the meaning of ideas is considered to be an essential and defining feature of human beings. In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place. A new or an original idea can often lead to innovation.

Very philosophical, but not helpful.

A better definition

Here is my useful definition of an idea:

An idea is a previously unsuspected connection among concepts that leads to non-obvious consequences.

Josh Bernoff

I wanted to create a useful definition, that is, one that would allow you to answer useful questions like “Is this an actual idea?” and “How can I come up with more ideas?”

Let’s take apart some of the elements of this definition to see why I wrote it this way.

previously unsuspected

This phrase is in the passive voice, and I did that on purpose, because the meaning varies based on to whom it is unsuspected.

If nobody suspected the idea before, it is a new idea. That has enormous potential.

If you didn’t have the idea before, it is new to you. That doesn’t make it any less of an idea. If you conceive a new way to stack grapefruits in the supermarket, it’s still an idea, even if some other grocery clerk in the next town over had the same idea independently.

This also addresses ideas you get from elsewhere. Every idea either comes from your imagination, or from something you read or saw. But at some point, you didn’t have it. The moment you get it — from someone else, or from your own brain — it goes from “unsuspected” to “aha.”

connection among concepts

In my view, useful ideas always happen at intersection of existing content areas. The idea of content marketing — that useful content can attract attention to your products and services — is at the intersection of media and marketing. Fivethirtyeight’s idea of poll aggregation is at the intersection of statistics, politics, and forecasting. The idea behind my book Writing Without Bullshit is that the only purpose of business writing is to create a change in the reader, an idea that occurs at the intersection of writing and business strategy.

Think about an idea that moved you. Is it deep within a single field, or is it at a point of connection between two or more existing concepts?

non-obvious consequences

An idea with no consequences is not actually an idea. For example, suppose my idea is that books are good. That’s not much of an idea — what would I do about it? But if my idea is that books are a good way to communicate how-to-information from experts, that idea has consequences. It means that if I am an expert who wants to spread my expertise, I should write a book, and that if I want to learn how to do something, I should read books on it.

The best ideas have consequences that are not obvious, as my friend Rohit Bhargava’s work points out.

Powerful ideas have powerful consequences. Moderna’s idea that mRNA is a good basis for developing a vaccine has saved millions of people from dying and rescued the economy — those are some pretty amazing consequences. Smaller ideas have lesser consequences. If my idea is that I should get rid of clutter in my office to be more productive, the consequence might be that I get more stuff done every day.

But an idea with no consequences doesn’t qualify as an idea worth discussing.

Some consequences of my definition

If you agree with my definition, here are some of the things you should think about.

Types of ideas

My definition doesn’t say much about types of ideas. So let’s go further.

  • A big idea is one with lots of significant consequences. A small idea has only a few, localized consequences.
  • A good idea is one that has positive consequences (like Moderna’s vaccine). A bad idea is one that has negative consequences (like white supremacy). Even if an idea seems like a good idea, you can’t really tell until you consider the consequences (consider the idea of social media, for example).
  • A well-supported idea is one for which there is good evidence. A weak idea is one for which there is no good evidence, or in some cases, where the evidence actually contradicts the idea. A well-supported idea can be good or bad, as can a weak idea. Just because there is proof doesn’t mean that the idea has positive consequences.
  • A new idea is a connection that people haven’t understood before. For example, consider Elon Musk’s idea that all the technical systems in a car should be connected. That changed the design of vehicles in a way that was pretty novel.
  • A popular idea is one that is easy to understand and spread. Again, that doesn’t make it good or bad, it just determines how many people pick it up and share it.
  • A narrow idea is one that affects only a small subset of people and knowledge. A broad idea is one that has repercussions across many areas. Critical race theory is an example of a previously narrow idea that has recently become a broad idea.

How to have ideas

If you agree with my definition of an idea, then if you want to have useful ideas, you must seek unsuspected connections.

To do that, you must expose yourself to other people’s ideas that are different from your own.

You should read about things you are not familiar with.

You should watch things that about concepts and fields that are new to you.

You should meet and listen to people who are different from you — from different backgrounds, in different jobs, with different ways of looking at the world.

If you don’t expose yourself to different kinds of thinking, you are not going to have any useful ideas. The connections that happen between what you consume and what you already know are where the concepts come from.

It’s not just about being exposed to other people’s viewpoints. You must also learn to think. Get in the habit of asking, “What would be the consequences of that? And what would be the consequences of that?” This is the role of teachers — they get you to think about consequences.

Finally, hang out with funny people. Humor is about getting a jarringly different view of the world. Funny people often shake things loose in your brain. Humor leads to ideas — not always directly, and often in ways you’d never suspect.

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