How do I come up with great ideas?

How do I come up with great ideas?

I’ve been a creative professional and I’ve mentored thousands of “Ideas People” over the last 20 years. Listening to them I hear three groups viewing Greatness through three different windows.

Archetypal artists and inventors start with their innate creativity. They value their ideas as profound expressions of who they feel themselves to be. Healthy creative urges perhaps stop there: artists, mathematicians and scientists all use aesthetic adjectives like “elegant” and “beautiful” to describe their best work. But some look for more. Their test of a Great Idea is either about quantity: “Do I get millions of likes on Facebook for what I’ve created?”, or quality, meaning “Does my hero – or the small group that I really respect – think what I have done is great?”

This picture of Greatness is about external validation: seeking energy and approval from someone else. In psychological terms, if it becomes a habit, it can lead to a child-like life position where the struggling artist or the ignored inventor forever seeks a pat on the head and a patron to pay the bills. It is easy for someone who sees the world this way to get stuck in a “victim” mind-set, blaming “men in suits” and seeing their own predicament as validating the myth that “artists must suffer” and “geniuses are never recognised in their own lifetimes”.

In contrast, archetypal social activists and political reformers look out through their window and see something that needs fixing in society. “Someone should do something about this … and I am that someone!” Their test of Greatness is again either about quantity – “How many victims of injustice I can help?” – or quality – “How deeply can I change peoples’ lives?”.

But however well-intentioned, deep down this view of Greatness is actually all about power. It is a lens that seeks to project energy and approval for good behaviour onto other people. Who would spurn such a magical ray of sunshine? Yet never putting it down can lead to a parent-like fixation that requires a “do-gooder” to keep finding victims of injustice and misfortune. The self-defeating nature of this addiction to “rescuing” is that, ultimately, it does not help victims stand on their own two feet but rather creates co-dependency. If we really value other people and want to do something great, we should seek to make ourselves redundant in the process.

Meanwhile, the third category – archetypal business “ideas people” – look at the world through a lens that magnifies cold hard logic, the importance of making money, and achieving economic growth above all else. They value an idea because it seems like a clever way to build a money machine. Their test of Greatness is: “How much money can I generate, in the shortest possible time, on the most repeatable basis, with the fewest resources?” In other words, their quest for Greatness is really about feeling smart. For most, money is just a way to keep the score.

In psychological terms this is an emotionally neutral, adult position. However, not all worthwhile problems in the world have commercial solutions and the businesses that entrepreneurs create do not exist in isolation. They only function within a diverse ecosystem where cultural and social wealth builders will view a person who simply seeks to make money as a heartless persecutor: “That soulless bean counter!” or even “That greedy bastard”. This puzzles “economically rational” people because they see their skill and destiny as being to follow market forces in a world that they accept to be unfair.

The trouble with only looking through one of these windows is that it’s like trying to drive with one eye shut. It limits our ability to see in three dimensions. Truly great ideas shine through all three lenses at once. They deliver cultural, social and economic wealth in parallel and they do not result in, or require, anyone to suffer, rescue or be persecuted.

Such greatness is the gift of the true visionary.