Ideas and your career

Last week, in discussing things to think about over the next decade, one of the key points was about ideas dictating value. In fact, I used more space on that one thing than on any other of a dozen and a half points I thought were important enough to occupy your time. It’s not that I planned it being the most prominent; it’s just that, as it turned out, it was. And, in retrospect, it should have been.

Your ideas will dictate your value, I said, and the more you generate new ideas and the more you challenge old ones, the more your value will rise.

But let’s be clear about what an idea is. Ideas and thoughts are two different things. We have hundreds of thoughts every day, but ideas are few and far between. An idea is an original, novel thought that has either tangible or intangible value and will change our mental construct of whatever we’re dealing with.

So suggesting pizza for a group lunch may sound like a good idea but it’s merely a fleeting thought. The guy who invented pizza had an idea; the guy who orders it has a thought. See the difference?

So what does an idea look like? For instance, how you’ll introduce robots into your organizational structure, integrate them with humans, and, as a result, improve the quality and quantity of output while creating more jobs and enhancing the lives of your coworkers – now that’s an interesting idea. On the other hand, what you’re going to name that robot is a fun thought but certainly not an idea.

Now, without getting into a whole philosophy course on the nature of ideas (or a whole degree, for that matter) – complete with readings from Plato, Descartes, Locke, etal –  let’s focus on the kinds of ideas that will matter in your workplace. In other words, the ideas of truth or justice or equality are all noble, and have actually been here before any of our ancestors ever realized them (states of being, really), but are abstract and at a higher level than this conversation. Concrete ideas, like introducing those robots, are exactly what we’re talking about.

To generate ideas, we must first understand where they come from, an interesting question that goes back millennia. Speaking for myself only (and not for Plato etal), I don’t believe ideas come solely from genius, expertise, experience, position (seniority), or any other advantages like those.

Ideas, I believe, come from a uniquely human capacity – our capacity to see things differently, our capacity to see patterns in otherwise unconnected objects or circumstances, our capacity to re-imagine the future. That last one, in particular, is worth dwelling on.

Re-imagining the future does not mean inventing things, although inventions certainly do change the future. But you don’t need to be human to invent. Chimpanzees, bonobos, and crows have demonstrated the ability not only to use tools, but to invent them. However, that’s a situational thing, and it never goes past that situation – or a repetition or adaptation of it. Re-imagining the future, on the other hand, has broad implications, not the least of which is creating an environment that fosters additional ideas.

So what we’re saying is that (1) ideas are valuable, not just to the organization but to the person who originated them, and (2) anyone, given the right circumstances, can generate an idea.

To wit, Michael Faraday (1791-1867) didn’t have the highest education or societal position, but through his apprenticeship years he read incessantly (including, interestingly, Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind), attended every lecture he could, and always thought critically about what he was doing. But based on his profile, you’d not expect him to be one of the most influential figures in electromagnetism or physics in general. However, because of Faraday’s capacity to generate ideas, physicist Ernest Rutherford stated unequivocally, “When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.” And Albert Einstein kept Faraday’s picture on his desk because one of the pillars of E=mc2 – the world’s most famous formula – is Faraday’s work.

So I’ll say this once again, but not for the last time. The more you generate new ideas and the more you challenge old ones, the more your value will rise.

That’s my story – and I’m sticking to it.

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