My adventures in cheap and expensive ideas, and why this is changing
Things are changing around here
As you may or may not know, I’m a designer. A decade ago it would have been the only thing I defined myself as. I was what I like to joke about these days: a whole-body designer, someone who does nothing else but talk about design, design in their spare time, design in their work time, design all their waking hours. A bore, basically. But being a whole-body designer for a while taught me a thing or two about ideas. And that—my dear reader—is the topic of conversation we’re inevitably careening towards today.
Before we begin properly though I want to lay out my rickety stall. My stall has one idea on it today because that’s all I need. Above my stall is a wooden sign that says “Cheap Ideas”. On my stall is a single piece of paper, written in a hard to read scrawl. It’s written in all capital letters. There’s paperweights at the top and the bottom of it holding down the scrap of paper. The paper has been there a while, battling all weathers. It says this:
Our ideas are cheap, and most of us know this to be true. But we still kid ourselves that our idea is different and better than everyone else’s.
I’m not asking you to buy this idea today from my stall. I only have one of them and I’d like to keep it on there as a reminder. But I’d ask you to observe it from all angles. Come to understand it. Maybe you’ll even get comfortable with it.
My idea of ideas being cheap is just as cheap as the rest of them, but there’s a difference here: I’m not trying to sell it. And that is where we’ll begin with the currency of ideas.
Selling ideas makes them cheap
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a designer. When you boil that job down to the very core it means one simple thing: I come up with ideas. Im a professional ideas-generator. If you pay me, I’ll scribble pages and pages of ideas down and refine that list to something I’d like to present to you.
On the rare occasion, that process is easy. I think of an idea in my head, I doodle it and it becomes the best idea I created for that client. I present it to them, they love it, and we all go away laughing into the sunset.
The more likely situation is I’ll spend days doodling on paper or in digital tools and coming up with nothing of worth. The worse situation—and the one I also find myself in regularly—is the one where I’m stuck generating plain old mediocre ideas. Ideas that are probably good enough for the client to say yes to, but not good enough for me to say yes to. Yes, I spend a lot of time in this zone, like some sort of average prison full of average ideas. Imagine a room full of televisions playing Marvel movies on repeat. Yes, that kind of average.
However the ideas-generation project goes down though, the fact still remains: I’ll likely generate multiple ideas per project and bin most of them. I understand my ideas are cheap and there’s always another one just around the corner. I even have three words set as my desktop wallpaper on my computer: Always Another Idea.
But that’s all my perspective, as a professional ideas-generating person. The other stall next to mine is very different.
Having ideas makes them expensive
Everyone else? They assume their ideas are very expensive. When you don’t spend a lot of your time generating ideas you worry that this is the only idea you’ll ever have. You think ideas are hard to come by. Your worries make you assume that your idea is worth more than it is.
When you don’t spend much of your time creating ideas, you tend to forget this:
“Ideas are cheap. Ideas are easy. Ideas are common. Everybody has ideas. Ideas are highly, highly overvalued. Execution is all that matters.”
— Casey Neistat
Yes, the quote itself is a little cheap and a little hackneyed. It’s been said a thousand times in a thousand different ways but it doesn’t stop its core message being true: ideas are easy and ideas are cheap.
Ideas are a weird beast. They will appear when you have no ability to remember them and will disappear at the exact moment you need them. You find more ideas when you don’t need them. Ideas don’t run out the more you think of them, they continue to expand outwards, spawning more and more ideas and multiplying. When you’re in the right space, you’ll never be short of ideas.
The only way to find an idea is to create a need for an idea. And if you believe you have no ideas, you will be correct.
Ideas are cheap until they’re hard to come by
Yes, this all sounds very nice doesn’t it? A rousing piece on the ability to find ideas, even if you think you don’t have any. I’m even attempting to convince you that finding ideas is easy, even when it isn’t. I’m even telling you not to worry. If you don’t have an idea, you’ll find one just by needing one.
How quaint. How inspirational. How very James Clear of me.
The truth is, I’ve been a lifelong believer of this point of view until I’ve had zero ideas for writing over the last couple of weeks. Hell, it’s probably been more like months. I’ve spent my time limping on with this newsletter, producing a weird podcast each week called The Wednesday Audio that masks the fact I’ve been pretty rubbish at writing anything.
After taking a short creative sabbatical a little under a year ago, I purposefully trained myself out of coming up with any ideas. I didn’t tweet, write, make podcasts, make videos, do anything. I relaxed.
The truth is, the real truth is that the rickety stall I spoke about at the beginning of this piece began to rot away a long time ago. Like my bathroom at home, I’d become an expert at avoiding the mould. I’d been avoiding the screws falling out of my rickety stall of cheap and easy ideas. Over the years a plank had fallen off here and there, and I’d pretended that was part of the aesthetic. But the planks had continued to fall off the rickety stall. The only thing I had left now was a sign laying down on the floor, its worn-away writing dulled. The only letters left on it: cheap.
You see, previous-me had never experienced the Expensive Ideas Scenario I wrote about earlier. I write about it above, probably unconvincingly, but I’d never struggled to find an idea before. I’d never really struggled, until I’d set out this idea to write about Content.
I’d given myself such a strict structure of writing, such a prison of niche that I’d began to strain for ideas. And the truth was, none of the ideas that were making their way through the cracks were worth it.
Ideas are easy, when...
The truth is, the real truth is that ideas are easy to come up with, but good ideas are hard to come by. I could just write an inspirational piece about finding ideas, and how it’s all about just finding ideas and needing ideas and working hard and hustling and tweeting and blogging and…but it’s not true.
It’s easy to write tired tropes. It’s easy to write the same piece that everybody has already written, but just in your voice. That’s apparently what originality is these days, if you’re to believe The Internet Guru. When you box yourself into a corner of ‘Inspirational Content’ you can pump words and tweets and TikToks out all day long.
But I’m tired of trying to fit into that. So, I’m not going to any longer.
What this is from now on
All this piece has been leading up to me saying one thing: this series of articles is no longer called ‘Content’. I’ve found the topic too restrictive and I’m tiring of it. It’s now called On Creating.
An ongoing exploration into creating things that mean things, avoiding hustle culture, and holding ourselves to a higher creative standard.
The name is different, but the mission mostly remains the same. I’ll be talking about making things that mean things. I’ll be talking about how hustle culture is reducing us all to inspirational fortune cookie robots, and I’ll be talking about how we should hold ourselves to a higher creative standard.
Like my podcast, some of these pieces will be weird and they’ll likely get weirder. I’m bored of writing the same things that everyone else has already written, but in my voice. I hope you will enjoy them, but I largely don’t care if you don’t. I hope you really hate some of them, viscerally hate some of them, and it inspires you to go on to create something else to get the hatred out of the system.
Either way, I’ll be writing them weekly because if I don’t I owe Thomas J Bevan a fiver.