What I Learned About Ideas and Innovation at My First Hackathon That Will Change How I Write

I learned a lot at my first hackathon this weekend, and not just about technology. Though I work in the Digital Products Department of The MIT Press, my technical experience is mostly HTML and CSS. Luckily, the CODEX Hackathon’s literary slant made it feel much more approachable, at least in terms of topic. I spent the weekend surrounded by other book lovers, and I was delighted to find that everyone brought something unique to the group, whether that was a new perspective or a desirable skill.

In addition to my work as an ebook developer, I’m a writer, and I’d say on any given day I jot down 5–10 random ideas, the majority of which I’ll never think about again. Before this weekend, I was a firm believer that some ideas are good and some are bad, which is why most of my ideas were written off as soon as they were written down.

I approached the CODEX Hackathon with this same mindset. I had no clue what project I wanted to work on because each time an idea popped into my head, I deemed it impossible before letting it even see the light of day. (“No one would use that” or “I don’t know enough to create that app.”) I kept waiting for “the one” idea, and it wasn’t until the opening dinner on Friday night that I realized just how much damage that thought process was doing.

I met and spoke with people who treated every fleeting idea like it was plausible; they dreamed big, and it showed, not just in their brainstorming process, but in the final projects they showed off at the end of the weekend.

Over the 24+ hours we spent together, I watched the many ways an idea can evolve from vague and improbable and slightly ridiculous into a real, working project.

All it took was a little effort, some passion, and the belief that if you didn’t know how to make something work, there was someone in the room who did. And for a writer like me who focuses a lot on the solitary act of writing, that’s a valuable piece of information.

This weekend changed how I think about ideas, but I also think I learned a lot about why hackathons have become so popular in our society. Before, I would have said that hackathons were about solving a problem or creating something new.

And while those are a few important goals, now I’d go so far as to say that the real purpose of a hackathon is to learn from other people. People with different skillsets and backgrounds, people you would never have met otherwise. The projects are important, but the success of hackathons is in changing the idea that innovation is individual. No matter what it is we’re working on, there’s someone out there who can help us make it better.