Oh, You Have An Idea, Do You?
There’s a saying in the arts. I’ve personally heard some variant of it from screenwriters, novelists, and game developers, but I think it holds up pretty well in almost any area of life.
Nobody buys ideas.
It’s a common problem, particularly among would-be artists. I know I’m guilty, and I bet you are, too. A great idea strikes me. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” For the next two weeks I’m elated, flying high on feelings of my own genius and ready to get the hell out there and completely disrupt the industry.
I’ve got hundreds of them, too. Novel ideas. Video game ideas. I taught myself a little bit about screenwriting specifically because I have this one idea that would be perfect for the one hour television format. I mean, I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but man I’m fucking brilliant sometimes.
So how can I possibly be so talented, and no one’s ever even heard of me?
I’ve never done anything, that’s how.
There’s an awful lot of distance between a great idea and the fame and fortune that great ideas sometimes bring. That distance has a name, and its name is “work.” It’s the unglamorous, unfun, uninteresting bastard cousin of the great idea, and we don’t talk about it nearly enough.
Frankly, having a great idea really isn’t worth a shit. Take but the briefest glance around you and you can’t avoid the reality that great ideas are everywhere. People write them in blog posts, in Facebook comments, in their tweets, and in their Kickstarter campaigns. We talk about them with our friends and wonder why no one has thought of them yet. We tell our families about a great idea we had and then wonder why they don’t set off a truckload of fireworks about it.
Like a penny, great ideas are supposed to be worth something, but seriously… they’re not. They’re not worth the space you take up to store them.
Having a great idea is not even remotely uncommon. You’re not special if you have one. On the contrary, you’re almost stupid if you don’t.
Ideas are the easy part. Nobody’s buying them because we all have our own.
What really elevates a great idea is not the cleverness of the idea itself, but the fact that it was in some way executed. People don’t buy ideas, but they surely do buy finished products. And if you think about it, there’s really only one way for your great idea to become a finished product.
You’ve got to make it. Write it. Sketch it. Program it.
Whatever your verb of choice, you have to have a verb. You have to do something.
It’s funny, but very few success stories tend to emphasize the true nature of work. When you think of someone influential, you probably think of the things they’ve done or created. You probably don’t even know about the months of tedious effort that went into the finished products they’re famous for. You don’t know what the process looks like. You don’t know about the mistakes, the false starts, the trying and failing over and over. You don’t know that forty-five percent of their success was actually just a lucky accident.
Work – that long gray area between brilliant idea and brilliant success – does not make a fun story, so most people don’t tell it. As a result, aspiring artists look at successful artists and see someone who makes it look easy. We try to bring our great ideas to life like our role models did, encounter a veritable mountain of work, and think we’re doing it wrong.
There must be a secret, right? An easier way, an insider tip that we just haven’t heard, a magic workflow that makes it all fall together with the snap of a finger. Because no one ever said anything about rewriting the same novel four times, so that can’t be the right way. Successful authors must just nail it on the first draft. But how?
The answer, unfortunately, is that no author worth his weight in words ever nailed it on the first draft. No author loves every minute of the writing process. When you’re sitting there trying to make words happen and they just won’t; when you read over your last three chapters and realize they suck; when you find yourself rewriting ninety pages of your story because of an inconsistency in your plot…
You’re not doing it wrong. You’re doing exactly what everyone else does. Because that’s what the process is.
If you really want the level of celebrity that comes with being a Stephen King, a Will Smith, a Taylor Swift, or a Jennifer Aniston, the first thing you need to realize is that none of those people rose to stardom under the momentum of good ideas alone. They worked their asses off. They did jobs they didn’t like. They made mistakes they’re not proud of (and still do). They had to jump through all the same hoops that are put in front of you when you start down the same path, and their only secret is that they jumped.
They didn’t talk about how cool it would be if the hoop was a different color and on fire. They jumped. Verb.
It wasn’t any easier for them than it will be for you. It’s work. We all have to do it, and the people who succeed are the people who do the work.
Don’t come up with a great novel idea and then think most of the job is done, because an idea isn’t even the beginning of the job. It’s basically just a sign pointing to the beginning of the job, and you’ve still got a long road ahead of you.
If that sounds like too much effort, then your idea wasn’t that great in the first place.