On Being an “Idea Person”

I’m an amateur student of language, so I often pick apart things that other people say, looking for the deeper, more literal meaning behind them in an ongoing attempt to make my communication more precise.

The particular phrase I’m picking apart today is “I’m an idea person.”

I used to say that a lot. I would feel as if I had all the right ideas, and if only someone would talk to me about my ideas and simply trust they were right, I could save them lots of time, money, effort, and heartache. My understanding was that the person I could help just lacked not the intelligence, but the time to have read what I have read, to have experienced what I’ve experienced.

Funny thing was, I’d had this conversation a few years back with Clark Sell, Counselor-in-Chief of That Conference, and it has stuck with me.

“KPD,” he said, “By now you should realize that ideas are cheap. Everyone has ideas, but it’s the few who can act on those ideas and deliver value that are our inspiration, the ones we truly want to be.” Okay, so that’s not an actual quote. The actual quote probably had a reference to smoked meat or classic car restoration in there somewhere, but you get the point.

There’s a lot of value here, so let’s pick apart this paraphrased quote.

Ideas Are Cheap

Nowhere has this concept been captured better in popular culture than on Comedy Central’s South Park. In the episode “Simpsons Already Did It”, Butters schemes to take over the world, but each time he does so, he realizes that the idea was already used on Fox’s The Simpsons. The core concept is that all the great ideas have already been born, and that what changes is the craftsman wielding the idea.

This notion stands athwart Stephen King’s aphorism “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” I’d argue against my all-time favorite author on this one. He is the best example of it being the storyteller, not the story. His stories are often typical horror tropes — the haunted hotel, the possessed car, the killer clown, the rabid dog, the Armageddon virus — but they are told masterfully in a way that is his own, and that people respond to. You don’t have a career like that if you’re not adding something special to the well-worn ideas.

So if all you have is ideas, at best you have an upgrade to an old idea. This can be a good thing, but it is only a start.

Everyone Has Ideas

Ideas are so cheap that everyone has them. We have them all the time. We have them every time we try to think of something better than what is. The person that got sick of vacuuming and came up with the Roomba was solving a problem. But do you think that was the first person that ever had the idea of a robotic vacuum? Hardly! (I’d argue even Rosie, the Jetson’s robot maid, was not the first idea of having your housework done for you.)

So if everyone has ideas, what does being “an idea person” mean? Aren’t we all “idea people”?

Only Ideas in Action Matter

Have you ever been in a group of people talking about something and someone says to you or someone else “Well, there’s your million dollar idea”? This happens to me every once in a while. But we all know what that means. It does not mean that you could walk up to a CEO somewhere and tell him of your idea and he’d write you a check for a million dollars. What it means is that if you quit your job, devoted all your time to producing and marketing this particular idea, that you’d have found a niche that might earn you a great deal of money, because it solves a problem for a lot of people.

It is only through the materialization of the idea that the idea is valuable. Many of us know Brandon Satrom from his time as a Developer Evangelist for Microsoft, or as a Product Lead at Telerik, or even through his association with That Conference. Most recently, however, he has taken his idea of creating an electronics kit for kids and a companion storybook to get them engaged all the way through a successful KickStarter. The idea isn’t the thing that made it successful. He did his research, produced a fantastic work, evangelized the project through social media, and made his funding goals (note, I do believe pre-orders are available).

“It’s the few who can act on those ideas and deliver value that are our inspiration, the ones we truly want to be.” — Clark Sell, who along with a team of tireless volunteers, delivers That Conference annually to the community.

So ideas are great, but they’re not even close to having the value we often place on them. As the prolific inventor Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” So having your idea is only the first of many steps.

Now go put your ideas into action!