Good ideas are hard to find today

Ideas have a better reputation than they deserve. For one thing, there are a lot of bad ideas and, for another, it’s even difficult to say what an idea is. My dictionary doesn’t know what to make of one: “Idea: Something that exists in the mind, potentially or actually.”

Does that explain what an idea is?

We all like having what we loosely call “an idea,” but we don’t really know where ideas come from. Do dogs have ideas? My problem – and I think a lot of people have the same one – is that I have a hard time directing my thoughts in any kind of orderly way so they turn into an idea. They wander around in my head without any guidance from me.

I have a lot of thoughts, but I don’t do much thinking. Thinking (I think), is organizing the facts in your head in ways that bring you to some intelligent conclusion.

Ideas are easier to live with than intelligent conclusions because ideas rattle around in your head and you don’t have to do anything about most of them. We all have more silly ones than we need. If mind-reading was something we could all do, we’d be pretty embarrassed to have people reading our thoughts.

Companies pretend they have a high regard for ideas by offering bonuses to employees who come up with creative ones. The winners are usually people who come up with ideas like putting bigger paper towels in the bathrooms so workers will use just one instead of two.

Quite often, people write me with what they call an idea and suggest I do something about it. This makes me mad because what they fail to understand is that having an idea is the easy part. Doing something about it is what’s hard and takes time.

Ideas can be a waste of time, too. It’s easy to start thinking about some idea that has no chance of doing you any good, but which you can’t get out of your head.

I was reading something written by Charles Darwin this week. He had a lot of maps and he wanted to find out about the sizes of several countries in relation to other countries. He wanted to be able to say one was twice as big as another or half as big.

Because of his scientific studies, Darwin had a very accurate scale in his laboratory, so he carefully cut out the maps of each country and then weighed the paper and judged their comparative size from that. I can’t get this idea out of my head, although it will never do me any good.

Some people have too many ideas. I envy the people who don’t have many ideas but understand everything about the ones they do have. They’re lucky and less confused.

It’s the people who are narrow-minded who get furthest in life. They can concentrate. I, on the other hand, am wide-minded. Another way to say it might be fat-headed.

For all the good reputation big ideas have, they have been as bad as they’ve been good sometimes. Democracy is one of the best ideas human beings ever came up with.

Hitler’s idea was as big as democracy but monumentally bad. So ideas, in themselves, are not always good.

My concluding question is this: Was doing a column about ideas a good idea?

(This classic column was originally published Nov. 6, 2000.)

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