How do you know if something is a good idea? Do you trust your gut? Ask other people? When is the right time to go all in a creative endeavor?
For the longest time, I misunderstood how this worked. I thought brilliance was a crapshoot. You either got lucky or you didn’t.
I figured it was a product of throwing as many things against the wall as possible and just seeing what stuck. And I assumed the best thing for me to do — if I wanted to come up with some brilliant idea — was to keep “throwing” things.
Certainly, there is some truth to this. Edison apparently came up with a thousand ways to make a filament lightbulb before he found one that worked. Master artists, on average, often spend over ten years practicing their craft before they have anything significant to contribute to the world.
We know that genius takes time and lots of tries. But is that all there is to it?
The truth is ideation is not just about attempts. It’s also about process.
I see this often with writers and creatives who just keep trying. They’re waiting for their break, pounding the pavement, hoping the hustle will pay off. But hear my loud and clear on this: There is smart hustle. And there is stupid hustle.
Stupid hustle says “keep trying, and some day all your hard work will pay off.” It tells you that it’s their fault for not understanding how good you are and to just keep going for it.
This is the American Dream, the story we think is the success of every great artist, entrepreneur, and athlete.
But that’s not the whole story.
Smart hustle isn’t just about trying stuff until something works. It’s about intelligent trial and error. It’s about taking feedback and using it to make your work better. To keep doing the things that work and quit the things that won’t.
As singer Colbie Caillat said when she was rejected by American Idol early on in her career, “They were right to reject me. I wasn’t that good.”
That rejection fueled Caillat’s drive. It made her better. Why? Because she didn’t just keep trying things the way she had been doing them before. She took the feedback, applied it to her craft, and found a way to succeed.
And if that’s what it takes for a platinum artist to succeed in the very competitive music industry, it’s probably not going to take anything less than that for you.
Quitters are winners
Seth Godin talks about this in his short but powerful book, The Dip, in which he debunks the common myth that “quitters never win.” That’s not true, he says:
“Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt.”
Quitters win all the time. Bill Gates quit. Steve Jobs quit.
Some of the world’s highest performers quit their way to success by discarding the things they weren’t good at or didn’t love so that they could do the one thing that they were the best in the world at.
And everyone, Seth says, has something that they can be best in the world at. You just have to quit your way to it.
So what does this look, exactly? How do you decide when something is a good idea and when something is a bad idea?
As I said, it’s a process.
Years ago, when I was a marketing director at a nonprofit, a friend gave me some great advice on this topic. He said, “Jeff, at our company, we never go all in on any single idea. We test it.”
“How?” I asked.
“Simple,” he said. “We call it experiment-chase-program. Before we spend a bunch of money on a new strategy or create a whole new division, we run an cost effective experiment. We set a goal and use limited resources to try to reach that goal. If it works, we move on to the ‘chase’ stage, which requires us to double down, spending some more money and time chasing this strategy. If we continue to see results, say over the course of a month or quarter maybe, we’ll move to ‘program.’ This is where turn this idea or strategy into some ongoing effort. We make it part of the business plan or marketing strategy. It gets a regular line item in the budget. Of course, we continue to measure how well it’s doing, but we realize at this stage there will be ups and downs, and so we evaluate on a less frequent basis. But if at any point, we think the program is no longer working, we go back to experimenting.”
Experiment. Chase. Program.
I love this because it applies to just about everything.
You’d never propose marriage on the first date. You’d go out once, and if it worked, you go out a bunch more times, even start “going steady” as the kids say. Eventually, you’d propose, and then get married.
Similarly, it wouldn’t be smart to quit your job the first day your blog blows up or you get a book contract. As you probably know by now, I’m not a big fan of this “take the leap” strategy and instead endorse a “build a bridge” approach. Take your time chasing a dream, and it will likely last a lot longer.
And so it is with your big idea, this book you want to write or the business you want to start. Don’t go all in until you do the following first:
Before you write the book or launch the business, start small. Begin with a habit. Try doing it for half an hour to an hour every day for 30 days and see if you still like it. See if you even have the discipline to do it every day.
Author Shauna Niequist once told me early on in my writing journey, “Most people think they have a whole book on their computer, when in fact all they have is a chapter.” She was talking about herself, but she was, of course, talking about me, too.
If you’ve caught the writing bug, as was the case with me, consider starting a blog and writing on it once a week before you run off and try to write a book. If you can’t do it on a blog, you won’t be able to do it in a book.
Run an experiment. Set a timeline for it, have an intended outcome, and create some consequences for what happens if you hit your goal or don’t. If you don’t, you need to keep experimenting. If you do, move on to the next step.
Once you’ve seen some success and realize that this thing you want to do is more than just a good idea — it’s something you have to do — then it’s time to chase it down.
If you were writing for 30 minutes a day, now it’s time to start writing for two hours. It’s time to start marketing and maybe even selling something. If you did it for 30 days, now up the ante to 90 days.
Make everything harder and riskier to see if you continue to enjoy the process. See if the idea holds up to scrutiny to 100 strangers. Get people to read your work, critique your business idea, give you feedback on your form and technique.
This is how we get better. We have to invest more of ourselves into the process and figure out what we’re still doing wrong.
I applied this principle after seeing results of my efforts with this blog — people were subscribing — and so I decided to try to sell something after a year of maintaining that habit. It was still an experiment but one that was a little less of a pipe dream than “I want to write a book!”
I conducted a survey, asking my audience what content they wanted, and they said “blogging help” so I wrote a short, 10,000-word eBook in a couple of weeks and sold it. I said, “If it sells 100 copies, then I’ll keep doing this. If not, I’ll try to find another way to support my family.”
500 people bought that eBook in two days.
So, I kept going. I kept chasing. And a year later, that Big Moment finally came… two years into the process.
At this point, you can go all in. You can quit your job or write that book or whatever. It doesn’t have to take two years, but it won’t happen all once, either. I quit my job after I’d run a number of experiments and chased the things that worked (books, courses, blogging) while quitting the things that didn’t (consulting, coaching, software). I found a way that worked for me and built a system around that.
I created a program.
This isn’t just about writing or quitting your job or any of that. It’s about how you take a big idea and turn it into something that just might work. It’s also a way to try just about anything without shooting down “bad ideas” or throwing away money and time at things that you think are good ideas that just don’t seem to pay off. The truth is, nobody knows if an idea is good or bad until it works or fails.
The other day one of our team members said, “Hey! How about we do THIS?”
I said, “Good idea. Let’s try it. But first, let’s experiment.”
Do you jump first and ask questions later? What’s your process for vetting new ideas? Share in the comments.