On Having Ideas

On Having Ideas

Prologue

When it comes to ideas, there are three kinds of people. Most simply live the way they always have with few ideas and little hope for improvement. They typically complain about their job & boss, their spouse, kids and lot in life. Or else they serenely accept it.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the dreamers, the visionaries, the often unreliable, flaky crazy round pegs that refuse to go into the square hole. Most of those are less successful than the “Not enough” group. Always switching from one thing to the next, never establishing the basis for success. But… often they are the happier lot who *just know* they are going to hit it big. As long as that hope holds, they are driven, full of energy, leading those who believe in them to whatever happens next, often letting them down, and starting up again.
Does anyone actually have just the right amount of ideas? How do we get into this selective group? Are you just born with it?
Me? I think I was born within the “Too many” batch. Frustrating lot, I’ll tell you. My mom called me “superficial”. My former husband told me to “consider things” before I rush into them. Gosh, I lit up about every fancy that flew into my head.  A conversation used to go like this:
Me:   “OMG, I have a new idea!”
Him: “OK… [bracing himself]. What’s that?”
Me:   <insert a way to change the world here>
Him: “So how does that make money?”
Me:   “Ahm. Err. People buy it?”
And so I went on. Lucky to have a very respectable career in tech (never had to wait tables while searching for my destiny), I decided I would never own a business because I was temperamentally not well-suited to it.
And then it all just kind of happened. Let me tell you what I believe is the key to landing in that coveted “Just right” spot that combines innovation with somber reasoning and good process that leads to success.

Step 1. You must have too many ideas.

I got lucky. This was free, even if it caused some frustration on the way. However, if you are going from not enough ideas up, you will necessarily overshoot the mark.  They tell you “push yourself outside of your comfort zone.”  “Do the unexpected.” “Believe in yourself.”  Well, having been there, I’ll tell you – you’ll be a fool more often than not. You have to have the experience of having a ton of bad ideas before you can isolate the good once. Figuring out how to go from none to just the billion dollar ones – will have you waiting for divine intervention. So go all the way. Accept the goofy. The wacky. Even the crazy.  (I’ll skip past the how for the moment – lots of books on that topic.)

Step 2. Create the image. Wait for it to fit.

I was consulting for a bridal shop franchise. On the way to meet the client, I scrambled to finish up my market research. I called Bridal Live – the dominant bridal shop management software company. Before I called, I created a story I could get behind.  I would call my imaginary shop “Old World Bride.”  The dresses would be made in a factory in Russia – my mom has the experience of running such a place. I could see her setting up shop even as I thought of it.  Don’t want a storefront – expensive. I’ll run it from my house.  Here I mentally hung dresses all around my already-bursting-at-the-seams house that’s currently housing 4 kids, 2 adults and a zoo full of various pets. I was immediately aware of my needs. Transactions. Where do I get the dresses? How do I communicate to my Russian operation what I need? Sizes! What sizes? Scheduling. Reminders. Automation. What else?.. I was able to ask lots of amazing questions and when I arrived to spend time in this cozy Silicon Beach vegan place in Playa Vista, I had a vision.  I could bring as much to the conversation as the client – and it was a fun easy-going meeting. We became instant friends.
Only a vision doesn’t always come together… A part of the picture doesn’t quite snap into focus.. like a missing puzzle piece that stubbornly refuses to be found. You walk away, and as a puzzle is laid out on the table, each time you walk back to it, you look a little more – until one day… Snap!  You see what went wrong. Sometimes it was staring you in the face – other times it was a different piece that didn’t fit just right, jammed into an almost-perfect place that was preventing the whole thing from coming together.
Wait.  “Don’t move until you see it,” – the chess coach repeats over and over in Searching for Bobby Fisher. (Awesome movie. Watch it tonight.)

Step 3. Wait for the right opportunity.

You are in a dense forest. You know where you need to be. There is a beautiful valley on the other side. You have a compass. What’s next? You look for a path that should lead somewhere in the right general direction.  This is your opportunity. If you begin chopping down trees for the purpose of going North, you’ll run out of resources, desire, hope, and time. Don’t force it. Just remember which way you need to go and look around. Something will turn up. Go pick some mushrooms and berries, watch the squirrels. Make a hammock. One day you’ll take a step – and wolla – there it is!
There is nothing quite like finding an opportunity for which you are ready. Like inspiration, infatuation, and the thrill of the right card falling in Texas Hold’em, you feel heady, even unsteady – excited to take that leap. Finally! We can do this!  I see where this leads!!

Step 4. Combine goals.

When I was a Junior in high school, fresh out of Russia, I discovered I had two problems.  One – I needed a boyfriend to fit into the complex social dynamics of an American school. Two – I needed a school-sponsored activity. (To my dismay, working over half-time while in high school did not count for college applications or the National Honor Society.)
So… I joined the Chess club. People laugh when I say this. But this activity fit my values and interests, guaranteed to expose me to the sort of smart boys I liked and was a bonafide activity!  As it turns out, this choice because it resonated with me and I did well – presented me with a ton of other opportunities. School trips, competitions, a social environment, and made my senior year of high school a personal success.

Step 5. Change direction

You picked a path. You are on it. It was an awesome path. You love it and it makes you happy.  Or maybe it doesn’t make you happy – but you are used to it. The current job, the geographic location, the particular solution, or even a commitment to another party. Everything you do has an opportunity cost. Does it make sense to proceed? Is the direction you are going truly in the interest of your goals and values?
Sometimes you can change the path but keep the goal. Other times, refine the goal. And the hardest of all, you may have to break a commitment, get away from an idea that was a bad one, remove a person from your life when the relationship no longer makes sense. This is painful. I find it easiest to consider those changes in the face of new opportunities. The pull of what can happen next helps me cope with the painful realization that I am simply on the wrong road.

Step 6. Salvage what you achieved

When a change is made, you do not have to give up everything it led to.
My former husband and I have decided to part ways as a married couple, but we were able to rescue the mutual respect, friendship, and even love.
The last two companies I worked for before starting Lean Street became clients – despite a disappointment when we parted because things weren’t working.
My stepson was not able to get into a private school the rest of the kids go to due to ADHD. Though he did not want to go to a specialized school meant to help him with focus and study skills – I promised he would get to go to the high school of his choice if he succeeds. He took it so seriously – he became an outstanding student.
How to you salvage? First look at what your obligations are. You broke a promise? Make amends. Let people down? Level and figure out how to restore faith. Be honest and honorable.
Then evaluate what you want to keep. Look around, and see what you really really want. Then create a picture of how it could fit into your new life… and onto looking for an opportunity!

Epilogue

I have a mental library of all the things I want out of life, including personal and professional goals, tactical and strategic initiatives, and desires of my family and employees. Despite popular advice, I do not write them down. I wait for them to pull me, to inspire me. They prioritize themselves. I have faith that I can match external circumstances to one or more item in my library. I find that it’s almost never just one. Things just come together when you really want to find a fit. I always do.
I described the method in steps. However, it is more of a matter of organization of ideas into images, well-formed and vague, and cross-referencing with opportunities, allowing one side to refine the other. Reflecting and checking in to see that the paths I am on (there are always many) really serve the chorus of ideas I have in my head as well as they could.