When Should You Give Up On A Good Idea?

The answer to every writer’s dilemma

Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

A good idea is like the seed of a rose hip. It must be watered, fed, and nurtured before it flowers. I’ve written over a thousand stories since I started on Medium. I’ve learned an important lesson.

My best stories developed from the intersection of compelling ideas and interesting experiences.

It’s hard to distinguish between the winning and losing ideas. Many of my concepts sound amazing at first but die unceremoniously as I trudge through my writing process.

Good ideas feel different

Sometimes you know you have a great one. That does not guarantee you success. You write, edit and post but nobody gets it. You go back and try and figure out what happened. Distance allows you more objectivity in your evaluation. You tilt your head and narrow your eyes and think, “what the hell did I write.”

The natural course of action is to shrug it off and move onto something else. I do that too, but if I still believe in the idea, I won’t let it die. I put it aside and come back to it a few weeks later.

Writing allows us to crystallize our thinking. The process of thinking about an idea, writing about it and editing it forces our brains to make sense of it. That doesn’t mean you get it right the first time.

Back from the dead

One of my favorite lessons from a former mentor of mine was about self-imposed distractions to avoid doing what we fear. His quote was “salespeople spend too much time getting ready.” I had written several stories that referenced this quote, trying a new angle each time. None of those stories clicked with my readers.

I tried again a few weeks ago. I approached it from a new perspective — how this concept interferes with productivity. This time it resonated with readers (and me too). It’s my most successful story so far in 2019.

It took me several attempts to get this idea coherent and relevant enough for it to resonate with readers. If I had given up on it, I never would have had the epiphany that benefited those who read the story.

Incubate or graveyard

In large group meetings, it’s common for folks to throw out ideas, many of them of high quality but irrelevant to the topic at hand. The meeting leader will label them as parking lot ideas. “Let’s park the idea for later consideration.” At the end of the session, we’ll decide whether to graveyard or incubate the idea. Yes, I’m using graveyard as a verb.

You can apply the same process to your ideas. Sometimes you nurture an idea and write about it. You realize that maybe it wasn’t such a great concept and it’s best to graveyard your creation. Other times you might conclude the idea is sound, but you haven’t nailed it yet. It needs more work, more development. The idea needs to incubate before it reaches maturity.

How to evaluate

I wish there were standardized criteria that determine with certainty if your idea is worth saving. There are subjective evaluations but nothing concrete. This process is not a mathematical formula. Your gut will tell you, but these questions will help point your gut in the right direction.

  1. Describe the idea with as much simplicity as possible.
  2. What do you conclude from this idea?
  3. Give an example. Summarize a personal experience or conduct research.
  4. To what domains have you applied this idea?
  5. What other areas does it apply? And how?

If you cannot answer the first two questions after writing a few hundred words, it’s probably best to move on. You’ve got nothing.

For the fifth question, jot down whatever’s top of mind. It doesn’t need to be complete sentences. You’re nurturing the seed. Give it time to germinate.

Come back to it a week, a month or six months later. Try answering the fifth question again. If the answer seems interesting, write about it. If the result sucks, delete it or throw it out. At least you’ll know you did everything you could.

Real world example

Let’s go back to the story I referenced earlier and use it as a basis for the five questions.

  1. Describe the idea with as much simplicity as possible.
    My mentor used to tell me “salespeople spend too much time getting ready.” It means that we pre-occupy ourselves with unnecessary activities to avoid doing things we fear.
  2. What do you conclude from this idea?
    Getting ready is code for “I’m too afraid to act.
  3. Give an example.
    When I was in sales, I would spend the first half hour alphabetizing my leads before I picked up the phone. It was a delay tactic.
  4. To what domains have you applied this idea?
    Sales and marketing (2016, 2017, 2018)
  5. What other areas does it apply? And how?
    A few weeks ago I skimmed through my “wisdom bible” (my book of accumulated knowledge) and saw the blurb. I thought about what other areas I could apply the idea. I settled on productivity, and it served as the springboard for the rest of the story.

Notice how sales and marketing were the obvious applications for the original idea. The problem is that those stories have been written a thousand times before. It wasn’t until I applied it to a new domain that it felt fresh and insightful.

It’s not all success

Ideas hold no value. They represent potential and possibility. What you create from your idea is the real treasure.

I’d like to tell you that going through this activity always results in success. It doesn’t. I boast plenty of failures to go along with my few victories.

I’ve been intrigued by this one idea for a long time.

“How a pilot’s loss of situational awareness leads to plane crashes.”

I have applied this idea to several disciplines. I failed each time. You win a few and lose a lot more. Is it time for me to toss this idea? My gut tells me there’s something there. I’m going to try again at some point. When it comes to killing creative ideas, you know when the time is right.

Letting go of your treasures can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that ideas alone are worthless. They represent the potential to become something great. Sometimes the potential isn’t there. Be honest with yourself and move on.

Experimenter in life, productivity, and creativity. Work in Forge | Elemental | Business Insider | GMP | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com.

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