Most Ideas Are Wrong


Photo by Barry Schwartz

Creative results, like scientific results, mostly arrive out of failure. “If at first you don’t succeed…”. It’s not just some platitude; it’s how things really get done.

You start out with a flicker and try to get it up to the level of a flame. Anyone who has produced work from an idea will recognize the process.

You could ask a Nobel prize winner. Francis Crick is one of the people who discovered the structure of DNA: “Look, the dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.”

Any writer will tell you the first draft is not the one that gets (or should get) published. Writing is re-writing. Rebecca Skloot is a science writer: “Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong, and letting everything change while you’re working on it – and I think writing is the same way.”

Or ask another writer (and another Nobel prize winner), Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”

Steve Jobs understood the tentative quality of progress. Jonathan Ive, now head of design for Apple, talked about it at the tribute to Jobs that took place on the Apple campus after his death: “And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.”

Creativity is not the exclusive pervue of scientists and artists, of course. It helps to be driven, obsessive, focused. And open-minded, imaginative, free-ranging. The balancing act is what gets work out the door.

Isabel Allende, as of this writing, has produced twenty books.  She has written: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” Seems to be working.