How Many Lightbulbs Does it Take to Change a Person?

Had to skip an issue last week because of travel (including a very entertaining breaking smart workshop with a bunch of architects at the Guggenheim). Anyhow, we're back. Topic for the week is IDEAS.

The secret to putting ideas to work for you is to have a handle on three questions about them: how many ideas you need, how big they need to be, and when you need them, during the course of a project. Together these three questions allow you to manage idea flow. Ambitious and creative breaking-smart projects -- ones that maximize your potential -- always transform you. That transformation is usually easier to measure than external change. So a good mnemonic for these three questions is what I call the inverse lightbulb joke setup: how many lightbulbs does it take to change a person? Managing idea flow is about answering this question creatively and often.

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Lightbulbs in the Middle. Illustration by Grace Witherell.

1/  Ideas that occur at the beginning or end of a project are usually worthless. Ideas that occur in the middle of a project are priceless.

2/ Starter ideas are usually compromised by narcissism. They say more about you than the world.

3/ Hindsight ideas that occur after an unsatisfying end are compromised by regret. The also say more about you than about the world.

4/ Ideas in the middle reflect the imperatives of action. They allow you to "do something rather than be somebody."

5/ A true lightbulb moment is one that transforms ongoing messy action to elegant action. A drunken stagger turns into a dance.

6/ A true lightbulb moment ALSO causes thinking to leap from analysis mode to synthesis mode or vice-versa; from destructive to creative or vice-versa.

7/ If you want to open with an elegant dance move, you'll never begin. There is no first lightbulb moment unless you're already moving.

8/ On the other hand, if you never wait for the elegant move to suggest itself before acting, you'll grind to a Aha!-free halt soon.

9/ Thought and action proceed roughly in parallel, kissing at decisions. When decisions occur at non-lightbulb moments, things get ugly.

10/ Creative decisions are the ones inspired by ideas. Analysis dissolves into synthesis, a drunken stagger into a dance.

11/ Not all decisions can be creative. Uncreative decisions tend to feel confining, depressing and either overwrought or premature.

12/ Creative decisions feel liberating, energizing and just-right. Like you're channeling a law of nature along its inevitable course.

13/ Creative decisions lower the entropy of both external action and personal transformation processes. Uncreative ones increase it.

14/ Both analysis-paralysis and perfectionism in execution are symptoms of the same thing: wanting every decision to be perfectly creative.

15/ Equally bad is the castles-in-the-air syndrome, when your ideas are routinely "too big" for the decisions they inform.

16/ The surplus "idea potential" in this case causes thought to be increasingly synthetic and insufficiently analytic.

17/ Result: a schism between action and thought. The action, undisciplined by analysis, gets dumber, and thought gets more useless.

18/ Similarly, when ideas are too small relative to decisions, you get unusable ugliness on the ground instead of castles in the air.

19/ The four failure modes: analysis-paralysis, perfectionism, castles in the air, unusable ugliness on the ground can all be managed by managing idea flow.

20/ Managing idea flow means learning to recognize when an idea is too early or too late and setting it aside for a better one.

21/ A tell-tale sign of an idea that is too early or too late is that it wants to grow when it should shrink, and vice-versa.

22/ Rather than forcing an expansive idea to shrink or a shrinking one to expand, just set it aside till it's relevant again.

23/ Grit -- disciplining yourself to manage the emotions of painful action enough to keep going -- is a good thing.

24/ But "intellectual grit" -- painfully forcing ideas onto trajectories they don't want to go on -- is generally a recipe for disaster.

25/ Ideas are the part of creative work that transform you. They make better leaders than followers. To "lead" an idea is to kill it.

26/ A far superior approach is to pick the idea that wants to go where the action needs to go. This means maintaining a surplus.

27/ We talked about how to do this last time in the "foxhog" newsletter. Be a fox in ideation and a hedgehog in managing idea flow.

28/ Actively managed idea flows create far more value through compounding than big initial inspirations (too big, too soon) or rearguard actions (too little, too late)

29/ They also create far more value than unambitious steady trickles that never grow beyond the tinkering stage (always the wrong size at the wrong time)

30/ To manage right, ask: how many lightbulbs does it take to change a person? Your personal transformation through ideas is the best measure of a project.

31/ Just as with lightbulb jokes, inverse lightbulb jokes have many creative answers. They suggest the right idea-tempo for each project.

32/ For example, for me as a blogger, a good answer for the last few years has been is, "One 40W one a week, one 100W one a month."

33/ So keep asking yourself the inverse-lightbulb question. It's the best way to keep projects creatively evolving instead of stuck.

_NEW! Want to chat in person about the ideas in this newsletter? You can set up a phone call with me via my Clarity.fm profile page.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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