The Unbearable Frightfulness of New Ideas

I wanted to collect my notes on the creative process, but that quickly branched into too many other domains. For this post, I’ve focused solely on the topic of New Ideas.

New ideas are trouble, and that's why we love/hate them 🙂

1. What is a New Idea?

"An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements. The capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships."

The Science Of Great Ideas–How to Train Your Creative Brain

2. New Ideas Give Us Problems, Part 1

New ideas present us with problems: They don't fit our mental model of the universe, sometimes literally. Undoing thousands of years of astronomy, cosmology & physics, Copernicus presented a very big problem to anyone within earshot: either everything they had believed was a lie, or Copernicus was a nut.

" clashed with all then accepted views, and with the prima facie evidence of the senses." - Karl Popper Selections

saying the Earth revolves around the Sun was an easy way to embarrass yourself.

lesson: It’s easy to be critical of new ideas, especially the ones that bend our logic.

3. We Need Bad Ideas!

"Have more bad ideas to have more good ones. It turns out that having a lot of bad ideas also means you’ll have a lot of good ideas." The Science Of Great Ideas – How to Train Your Creative Brain

It's far better to generate radical variation in quality than to wait for 1 good idea.

Isaac Asimov agrees!

"The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display."


Do creative people have more bad ideas than average? "There is a fair bit of data that says: yes."

"one maximizes one's chances of obtaining exceptional ideas not necessarily by raising the average quality of ideas generated, but rather by increasing the variance of quality of generated ideas (i.e., generate both worse and better ideas)." - Joel Chan, Assistant Professor at University of Maryland

Quora Article with references

4. New Ideas Give Us Problems, Part 2

Generating bold and innovative ideas is hard - there's no guide. Karl Popper, early 20th century philosopher, presented the most articulate method of determining whether or not a new idea will be innovative.

“our progress can best be gauged by comparing our old problems with our new ones. If the progress that has been made is great, then the new problems will be of a character undreamt of before” - Karl Popper Selections

  • A very successful person with exactly 99 problems

For Popper, a revolutionary idea appears to be completely crazy, or 'false' as he would say. This is why new ideas present us with problems. They force us to take risks, and beg us to forget our current mental models. New ideas are headaches.

"When is a conjecture daring and when is it not daring? Answer: it is daring if and only if it takes a great risk of being false..."
 Karl Popper Selections

5. Great Ideas are Fragile.

In conversation with Tyler Cowen, Sam Altman(Venture Capitalist) said one of the most touching things about new ideas…

"Great ideas are fragile. Great ideas are easy to kill. An idea in its larval stage —  all the best ideas when I first heard them sound bad. And all of us, myself included, are much more affected by what other people think of us and our ideas than we like to admit."
Sam Altman on Loving Community, Hating Coworking, and the Hunt for Talent

6. Anatomy of a New Idea - Move 37

In March 2016, Lee Sedol, grandmaster of the game Go, played Google's Deepmind AI, nicknamed, 'AlphaGo' in a game of Go.

The game proceeded normally, each player adding a piece to the board. Then, AlphaGo played Move 37. From every description, when AlphaGo played Move 37, the experts in both A.I. and Go were stunned into silence.

An AI was playing a sophisticated game against the worlds greatest player and it was about to embarrass itself. Except that's not what happened.

The Experts thought 'move 37' was a bad idea or a mistake.

AlphaGo won the game. Move 37 was a new idea in the game of Go.

“the human-machine interaction during the game enabled - or liberated - the human to become more intuitive, and to discover a part of reality that was hitherto unknown.” - move 37, huffpost article

That's a new idea - People think it's looney(even the experts). Only later does it sink in and become the new knowledge.

7. Killing New Ideas, or Preserving The Status Quo

It's not surprising that innovation within a large corporation is seen as a threat, not a goal: New ideas in large organizations are hugely problematic.

The existing players in any sector(business) have resources, processes, partners, and business models designed to support the status quo. This makes it difficult and unappealing for them to challenge the prevailing way of doing things. Organizations are set up to support their existing business models- Thinking Catalytically, by Clayton Christensen

This is nothing new for Clayton Christensen, whose book, "The Innovator's Dilemma" shows how difficult it is for companies to be innovative. With examples ranging from data storage to heavy machinery, Christensen makes a compelling argument that New Ideas are in constant conflict with large, established companies.

Kodak is a perfect example of this inner conflict. Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s, but never implemented the product. Kodak feared the problems that would impact their business, and they passed on the idea.

The first digital camera...

8. Ideas Need Conflict

By increasing the sheer number of ideas, good or bad, we rapidly increase debate. By increasing debate, we determine the strengths and weaknesses of each idea.

Karl Popper again...

"Bold ideas are new, daring, hypotheses or conjectures. And severe attempts at refutations are severe critical discussions and severe empirical tests."

9. Lastly, Great Ideas Don't Happen In Straight Lines

In the book, "Range" David Epstein describes the many jobs Van Gogh attempted before finally, late in life, landing as a painter.

  1. Van Gogh failed as an art student in his teens.
  2. He failed as an art dealer, seeing nothing revolutionary or good in the contemporary artists of the day.
  3. He failed as a French and Math teacher.
  4. Being a terrible public speaker meant that his time in school studying to be a Pastor went nowhere.
  5. After a decade of varying attempts to ground himself in a career, Van Gogh returned to art school, where his attempts at realism were scoffed at by teachers and students 10 years younger than him.
  6. Frustrated, he took his easel outside, into a storm, to paint, forgetting his focus on realism. He invented a totally original style, and became the artist who transitioned the art-world from formalism to modern art.

"He emerged with a new art: impetuous, slathered with paint, erupting with color, laden with no formality other than to capture something infinite...he would launch a new era of art and inspire new conceptions of beauty and expression."
Range, page 126

Beach at Scheveningen in Stormy Weather

10. PS - New Ideas Can Come from Anywhere

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I love you all 🙂