A private sense of humor has been key to my sanity for several years now. It has helped me deal with the label Idea Guy that I acquired as a kid, and have never since shaken off. Once I realized that it was a (very) mixed blessing, I went from downplaying it, to being alternately defensive or assertive about it, to resisting it, to trying hopelessly to “fix” it, to finally finding a way to accept and manage it. Acceptance, for me, has involved a private joke of a self-image that is a mix of Camus’ Sisyphus and the Max Fischer character in Rushmore, coupled with a model of the ‘Idea Guy’ mental style as a chronic medical condition. I don’t know if you’ll find the medical metaphor in this piece funny, but you might find it useful. This is not a piece about becoming an idea person. That is not something you choose. It is a condition you have to manage, like diabetes, once you recognize it.
A well-known, highly-productive professor (measured in terms of number of PhDs supervised and papers published), once confided an opinion about a colleague to me: “He’s a visionary and very smart, but he hasn’t graduated any students yet, though he’s been here as long as I have. At some point, if visionaries don’t produce any output, people just stop listening.”
The anecdote teases apart the notion of the idea person, the personality type, from the professional ideator, a (more common) socially-defined role that can be learned, and performance within which can be measured. Even if you are in a research lab, like I am, where everybody is supposed to be an ideator, generally the idea people will be easily identifiable (hint: follow the derisive laughter).
The professor’s attitude is a pragmatic, statistically reasonable attitude towards idea people. Most of the time, the attitude will turn out to have been justified. If you are an idea person, chances are extraordinarily high that you will die without having had any impact whatsoever on the world, because of the demand/supply economics of ideas that I’ll cover later. So you have to develop the right philosophical attitude (hint: Sisyphean), which I’ll cover in the treatment/management section.
Idea-personhood is caused by an underactive piece of neural machinery coupled with an overactive piece in another part of the brain. The overactive part generates more what-ifs about the world than are necessary for survival. The underactive part fails to stop the runaway train of what-if thinking efficiently. Someday neuroscientists will locate these pieces in Latin. The result is a mental condition of near-constant ideation. A flow of ideas, from trivial to substantial, that far exceeds the amount of statistically necessary brainstorming in any socially useful role. Far more than necessary to fuel those deluded rational innovation processes like TRIZ.
The condition also creates a voracious appetite for a very unhealthy kind of intellectual diet: heavy on concepts, a little lighter on facts (favoring qualitative and historical rather than quantitative and current) and rather light on how, or skills/procedural knowledge (though we are quick skill-learners as a breed, we rarely get beyond ‘amateurish’ at anything). That’s like having a congenital inclination to overeat fats and simple carbs with too little complex carbs and protein, and no exercise to integrate the protein into muscle and maintain it. Again, sufferers don’t choose that mix of cravings.
So an idea person is a concept-heavy, story-loving, reluctant-to-face-data amateurish dabbler in a lot of different things.
If you’ve only ever tried brainstorming when told to do so by some coach or teacher in a classroom exercise, and found it unnatural, you don’t have the Idea-personhood condition. For an idea person, it feels forced and unnatural to stop the process. We suffer chronic or episodic insomnia as a result. For the idea person, the idea of starting the process is not separable from ‘waking up.’ It can even intrude on dreaming.
So if that sounds like you, try to confirm the diagnosis.
There are no good personality tests that I know of, that unerringly nail Idea personhood. But honest autobiographical analysis can help. Here are the signs you should look for, based on what I see as evidence along my own trajectory.
- Lemonade-stand entrepreneurial instincts: I was always the guy in my class who came up with the idea for, and led, the class booth at the school fair. In fifth grade it was a coconut shy, next came a maze navigation game with remote-controlled cars. Then an instant-noodle booth. Finally, an air-gun balloon shooting booth. My team turned a profit each time, but I have no idea where we ranked in the money-making stakes. Probably not very high. Idea people get in the game for the fun of building something out of pure conceptual hot air. While I have been involved in “real” entrepreneurship by way of an Internet startup, that’s not as reliable a sign, since lots of Idea People never have the opportunity, and lots of non-Idea people are attracted to adult entrepreneurship for reasons besides having ideas (like “making money”).
- Execution Failures: You should be able to spot incidents when you disappointed people by producing output that was wimpy compared to your big talk. I’ll cleverly not list mine, but trust me, I have several. None really big though. I wised up quickly here.
- Narrative/Communication instincts: I scripted several class amateur theatricals, founded our school science magazine (the Loyola Probe; I wonder if it is still alive), privately wrote dozens of short stories, lots of bad poetry and even one embarrassing unfinished Hardy-Boysesque novel. Tellingly, I was fairly good at extempore public speaking, but pretty terrible at what Indian schools call ‘elocution’ (memorized speeches) competitions. In more pathological contexts involving brain-damaged patients, skill at extemporaneous public speaking becomes confabulation. If I ever go mad, that’s the likely route. People sometimes ask me how I blog so much both here and at work. The right answer: it is an effort to stop myself.
- Organizational instincts: Idea people like to start (but not run) organizations. Preferably around novel processes. In school, I co-founded an airplane enthusiast club and a computer club (neither succeeded). I’ve also started several mailing lists and online communities of varying success levels. We like flowcharts. But these instincts nearly always end up badly without good support from people with complementary strengths, because we are not process people. We like to invent them (usually in an overcomplicated first-draft form that we then have to simplify), but we have trouble following them ourselves because we are easily distracted, and attracted to improvisation and short cuts.
- College Dark Ages: Higher education tends to be a bad time for idea people. College is where amateur talents become professional, money-making skills. It is where the truly skilled competitors forge ahead, and coasters, even if successful in grade school, drift to rankings-mediocrity. I stayed near the top of my class with hardly any effort through high school, but “hardly any effort” got me a comfortably obscure middle-of-the-class ranking in college. Even the Max-Fischerish extra-curricular dabbling doesn’t work out, because there are people around who turn that into a professional-quality competitive game as well. Graduate school gets a little better, and with an understanding adviser, a PhD program can be downright comfortable, but the rank/numbers-competition based student environment is never really friendly to idea people.
- Can’t-Help-Myself Disruptive Work Behavior: Posturing by a few jerks aside, most idea people don’t actually set out to be disruptive. They don’t toe the line because they have a lot of difficulty seeing it. Others by contrast, seem to see brick walls whose existence idea people can only infer in an abstract sense. This means unless they’ve learned to manage around their boundary-blindness and get the right kind of support, idea people will tend to get fired, sidelined, underutilized, ridiculed into obscurity or otherwise end up in unproductive places. Think cat-personalities versus dog-personalities; hierarchy sensitivity versus hierarchy obliviousness.
Prognosis if Untreated
I’ve know good idea people, who’ve gotten the condition under control and found themselves the right environment to be productive members of society. But far more often, I’ve encountered idea people who’ve left their conditions untreated and unmanaged (remember my unhealthy diet metaphor? think mental obesity). The outlook is grim, and proceeds through several clear stages. You will progress as follows:
- The Evangelical Phase: You will spend some years talking too much and trying to make others do things through force of argument and vision-painting alone.
- The Bumbling Phase: You will recognize the need for proof belatedly, and for some project, over-estimate personal abilities and try to do too much all by yourself, with weak, amateurish execution skills, leading to ridicule-worthy output that even you can see looks nothing like the starter visions.
- The Loss of Credibility Phase: You’ll give up execution, but continue talking. At some point people will stop listening. Credibility will become a distant memory. If people around you are sufficiently lacking in compassion, you will also endure overt ridicule.
- Descent into Madness: I have seen one truly sad real example of this (my friends from undergraduate years can guess who I am talking about).
Idea-personhood requires lifelong management. It is unlikely to get you anything of value, but it still needs to be managed to prevent madness. Here are the things you need to do.
- Learn the UnSkills: Craftsmanlike people will always beat idea people at anything where skill and virtuosity can be evaluated and indefinitely improved. There is a set of what I call “Unskills” that, however, craftspeople ignore because they don’t think of them as learnable, improvable skills. These include a sense of narrative, a sense of metaphor and a sense of design. You already have these senses. Develop them through play, not practice. This blog is it for me. They are nicely described in Dan Pink’s Whole New Mind.
- Learn the “Braking” Tricks: You’ll never get anything done until you learn a few tactics to shut off your brain. I use TV, walking, getting drunk, cooking, and eating. Anything based on distraction tends to work. Driving is dangerous though — I’ve had two accidents due to driving while thinking too hard. If you are thinking furiously and uncontrollably, don’t drive. One subtle trick I learned was ‘give the runaway train of thought enough rope to hang itself.’ If your idea stream seems unstoppable, do everything you can to accelerate it. At some point it will just run out of steam out of sheer neural exhaustion, and you can get some sleep.
- Accept Bipolarity: You are borderline (or full-blown) manic-depressive. Which means your energy swings are fairly wild. Learn to live with it rather than attempting to mimic the steady energy flows of the virtuoso doers. Get your work done in your manic bursts, stop apologizing for long periods of apparent sloth, and tackle swings towards the depression end with busywork and mindless chores that you have to do at some point anyway. You might as well use your otherwise useless lows.
- Adopt Sisyphus as your Model: For reasons I’ll outline in a minute, there is a good chance you will never have an impact. Your life will likely be one long series of episodes of rolling rocks up hills, only to see them roll down again on the wrong side. Learn to accept and enjoy that process. Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus should be your bible. Existentialism should be in your attitude toolkit.
- Learn to Manage Perceptions: More than for almost any other personality type, Idea people must actively manage perceptions, because they don’t have the luxury of having strong, silent actions speak for themselves. If you ever have an impact, chances are it will happen through more skillful and intelligent people believing in your ideas — Idea person-hood is not a form of intelligence. You are the sum total of your ideas, not your actions. Ideas, by their vary nature, are objects of ridicule and derision until proved sound. If you don’t manage the way you are perceived, you will default to ‘ridiculous.’
- Get out of Mutual Admiration Circles: Idea people, often beaten into submission by powerful and skillful doers around them, can retreat into co-dependent circles with other idea people. Don’t do this. Just don’t.
- Get into Complementary Teams: More than almost any other type of person, Idea People need others. We’d die in Robinson Crusoe mode. In all but a small collection of fields, we are incapable of adding much value by ourselves. Recognize that, mourn for a bit for your loss, but then get started trying to find people with the strengths that make up for your significant failings. Win their trust, and hope something good comes out of it.
- Get your timing/positioning instincts honed: Idea people depend on being in the right place at the right time to see their ideas gain traction and go somewhere. Develop your restlessness and keep moving (your personality will propel you to motion anyway, but only conscious will can direct you towards the right opportunities). The specific time/place where you might get a win will be an accident. That you eventually will get at least a small win will not be, so long as you keep moving.
- Be Maze-Bright: You aren’t naturally good at numbers’ games beyond a certain level. You are neither motivated by, nor skilled at, winning numbers games at professional levels (papers, patents, number of novels, column inches of journalistic output). But you need to play these maze games just well enough to get the passports you need to access opportunity spaces. Don’t look for your wins there though. You’ll either succeed by causing a couple of major/minor earthquakes, or by hitting a rich vein as a first-explorer where you’ll turn into a hyper-productive winner in a numbers game that YOU define.
- Develop Gap Sensitivity: Understand that you are relatively amateurish at everything you think you are good at. You will never be a virtuoso anything. Look around and learn to recognize the people who play your amateur games at the pro level, where things happen with an operational sophistication you can’t even begin to appreciate. I learned this the hard way. I always knew I sucked at chess, but one day in college, a friend talked me into playing. Just a few moves in, another skilled player walked in, took one look and asked, “My God! Who’s getting f***ed?” It struck me forcefully that these skilled players were seeing the game at a level I wasn’t aware existed. I now realize that the same holds true of any high-skill game, from writing to theorem proving to programming (all of which I am thankfully somewhat better at than chess, but by no means a pro). You need these pros working with you if you want to stand a chance at winning any seriously worthwhile game in life.
The Economics of Ideas
So why are Idea People such a besieged and troubled species? It is a mix of probabilistic pragmatism on the part of non-Idea people and unalterable over-supply. From the point of view of a skilled doer, the wisest course through life is to become extraordinarly good at something and get paid a premium to apply that skill. For somebody with a valuable skill, it is possible to completely ignore the idea people strewn like beggars around the landscape, and have a good life just working on validated, low-risk mature ideas. The demand for good, big ideas isn’t as high as people think, because of the simple constraint of execution bandwidth. One Einstein (a classic idea person) can occupy a couple of generations of more-skilled peers. This means a few idea people can basically meet the demand for interesting work from vast numbers of more talented and skilled virtuouso execution types.
Unfortunately, the medical condition is more common than economics demands. There are about 10 times as many idea people as the world needs, and even among those — say 3/10 — who manage their conditions soberly, only 1 will get anywhere. Nine will need to live with a life of zero impact.I think I manage my condition about as well as I can, but I still think my odds of having an impact-ful life are just 1 in 3, and to a large extent, the outcome is going to be random. A Sisyphean sense of humor is necessary. Fries help too.