“It's not about ideas. It's about making ideas happen.” ~Scott Belsky
In virtually every human pursuit, from personal growth to the arts to business, ideas and the execution of those ideas is what drives us forward.
And when it comes to ideas, there are basically two kinds of people:
- Those who struggle to come up with what feels like good ideas
- Those gifted with a ton of ideas, but who struggle to pick the right idea to pursue
And because struggling stinks, the good news is that no matter which of these two camps you’re from, what follows can help you.
As for me, I come from camp #2. Ideas come to me in waves, and when the waves hit they’re like tsunamis. I’ve got the debris—dozens of notebooks and countless sticky notes, napkins, even birch bark with my barely legible notes about the idea on them—stuffed in manila envelopes to prove it.
My problem, however, used to be that when it came time to work on a new thing—in my case a new article, video, book, or business, for example—I’d review all my ideas and feel… CONFUSED AND OVERWHELMED.
Because there were actually many ideas scribbled in my notebooks and stuffed in my manila envelopes that were good. And how on earth do I pick just one idea? Especially if I was going to be investing significant amounts of my time and energy into it.
Sometimes this overwhelm led to my inertia. Walking away entirely and not getting anything done for hours, days, even weeks on a few occasions because I was stifled by the choices.
More often, this overwhelm lead to me choosing something, starting it, then abandoning it, because this other idea actually seemed better after all. Until I’d abandon that, too, for the next better idea. And so on.
If ideas that I started but never finished were worth money, I’d be a billionaire.
I finally realized I had to step back and figure out the healthiest approach to pick the right ideas to pursue. And to make a really long story short (a story involving extensive research, lots of trial and error, journeys to wizards in far-off lands, fighting ogres, and more), here’s what I discovered.
It’s Not Just About What You’re Good at or What You Know
When it comes to choosing the best ideas to pursue, some common advice is to pick what you’re good at or know about. And okay, that’s well-intentioned.
However, I’ll bet you’re good at a lot of things.
Just like I’m good at a lot of things.
For example, I am good at showering, arguing with customer service agents, and carrying many bags of groceries from the car at one time (it's an ongoing dangerous quest of mine to try to carry them all at once no matter how many there are).
I’ll also bet that, like me, you could become knowledgeable about and good at other things, with a little to a lot of effort depending on the thing, if you really wanted to.
The problem with this advice is that it encompasses such a wide range of possibilities that it’s usually little help at narrowing down your best ideas. And many if not most of your ideas likely fall under the umbrella of things you already know or are good at anyway.
It’s Not Just About What’s Profitable or What Other People Want
If you’re in business, or you’re working on something that you want other people to desire in any way, these common criteria for choosing your best ideas certainly matter.
However, they should always be a secondary part of the choosing equation. If you just choose to pursue ideas that others’ want, but that you personally aren’t fired up about doing, the result is always mediocre at best (if you’re somehow even able to complete execution of those ideas in the first place.)
Far more important is the most important criteria you’ll discover below.
It’s Not Just About What You’re Passionate About
It’s also common advice to pick the ideas you are passionate about. But while this gets closer to the most powerful factor, this advice can also be too vague to actually help you narrow down to find and pick your best ideas.
Because again, like the advice to do what you’re good at, you are likely passionate about many things. And most if not all of the ideas you do have are all related to what you are passionate about anyway. It’s kind of like being handed a big plate of different cupcakes, all of which you love, and being told to choose the one you love. Really? Well-intentioned, but not necessarily helpful.
It’s About What REALLY BUGS THE HELL OUT OF YOU
This, I have discovered, is as magic as it gets for both discovering and picking the best idea to pursue.
As you may be surprised to see, all the best ideas—those with the most inherent energy in them to drive you forward to making the ideas a reality—start with this question: What really bugs the hell out of you?
There are, of course, many different phrasings of this question that may ring more for you, depending on who you are, such as: What would you most love to improve, within yourself or out there in the world? Or, what really effing pisses you off?
And to help you fully understand why this is so powerful, let’s use you as an example.
Let’s say you are very interested in your personal growth. You read blogs, magazines, books, and more on the topic.
And you’d just love to feel less anxiety, boost your self-esteem, overcome procrastination, less lonely, make more money, and … and… and…
Those are all separate ideas you have. And while your desire to execute on all of them is admirable, it’s also a recipe for failure at all of them. Because you are human, and you cannot possibly achieve all that. You’ll likely bounce around all these ideas, sometimes for years, and not apply yourself to actually achieving any one of them.
So instead… ask what aspect of yourself really bugs the hell out of you the most. Sure, you’d like to improve in every area of improvement there is, but what particular area most gnaws at you? What one thing would you most like to improve about you?
Whatever you answer, that is the personal growth “idea” you need to pick and focus on.
Asking this one big question works in every professional and personal area of life where you are trying to generate the best next idea to work on. Here are some more examples:
“Computers are great, but what bugs the hell out of me the most is that they look so ugly and their operating systems are confusing! Here’s my attempt to change that—I think I’ll call it the Apple!”
“It bugs the hell out of me that there’s so much negativity pouring out of mainstream media. It makes the world seem like such a dark and helpless place! So out of all these ideas I have, I’m going to choose to create a documentary film about little-known people who are working hard to reveal what is good in the world and empowering people!”
“The whole house needs to be cleaned. But that disaster area called the garage bugs the hell out of me the most, so that’s what I’m going to work on today.”
Or in the case of me and this very article you are reading: “It bugs the hell out of me that so many of the individuals and organizations I work with are stifled by ideas, like I was. Because that means so many great ideas that could help our world aren’t even being created. So I’m going to share with them the best way I’ve discovered to develop and pick the best ideas!”
Whether you feel like you’ve got no ideas, or a thousand ideas to pick from, pinpointing the zig that you most want to zag is simply the most powerful way to generate and choose that best next idea to work on.
Not only will it provide you the most motivation to keep working at it, but if your idea is to be experienced and/or purchased by others, chances are great that:
- Many out there are just as bothered by that thing that bugs you the most, and will embrace your solution.
- More than any other idea you could pursue, your energy and drive will shine through those ideas you pursue with this as your #1 criteria.
Make a List. Check It Twice.
Consider making lists of the things that really bug you.
(Don't worry, it doesn't have to be a complete list, there's no such thing. The beauty is that it will never be a complete list, because the world and your brain will happily keep serving up new things to bug you, which is something to actually be grateful for!)
Go ahead and categorize them by the different areas of your life.
Make one for yourself, where you might add things like your excess body fat that drives you nuts, your guilt at cheating on a spouse, your pain at being cheated on, or your anger at a cruel parent.
Make one for social issues, where you might add things like the polarization in politics, the boring buildings being built these days, people talking on cell phones in a theater, or even the ugly shoes most women are wearing.
Make one for your work, your home, and any area of your life as you see fit.
Then check it twice. Or three times.
Check it to see which of these problems really, really bug you the most. If you have a huge stash of ideas like I do, match your “Bugs the Hell Out of Me” lists against these ideas.
Which most excite your senses? Which ones most make you want to leap out of your chair and do something?
In each area of your life, in whatever mediums you work in, you’ve now got a clear road map of the best ideas to pursue. (If you are in business, for example, you can now further narrow down by secondary factors such as how profitable it might be, much it will cost to develop the idea, etc.)
So the next step is to go do it!
Drive that frustration with so many boring buildings into planning the next Taj Mahal. Pour the pain that comes with being cheated on into a quilt. Develop a sensor that automatically silences all cell phones in theaters (please!). Choreograph a dance that shows us, directly or abstractly, what happens from so much political polarization.
This is a very powerful way to both create and pick your best ideas and drive them to completion. Please share it with others, because we need more great ideas that become a reality. And please share your thoughts on this with me. =)