On Idea Hoarding

Stop saving your best ideas for later because later never comes.

I have one of the dumbest and most self-destructive habits.

I hoard my best ideas.

I think this is common, but it’s a catastrophic failure mode.

So today I’d like to diagnose it—in an attempt to abolish it—for myself, and for you.

You have a bunch of good ideas you would like to develop and publish.

But you don't want to put them out there until you can really do them justice, you tell yourself. And when will you be able to do them justice? There is no answer. The answer defaults to never. The concept of “doing them justice” makes no sense. It's a false premise.

We hoard our best ideas because if we publish them and they’re not successful, then it’s hard proof we’re just not as good as we hoped. By hoarding our best ideas, we can always tolerate our own failure to “break through” by telling ourselves: "Well, that’s just because I haven't published the good stuff yet!" So idea hoarding guarantees that one can never be proven to lack the goods.

But we also hoard ideas because if one suddenly succeeds, then we suddenly have to live up to the idea. A good idea alone is not terribly hard to come up with. But a break-through good idea, one that really hits and starts to spread, where many people want to know more… Well, suddenly that’s just another test, a test where you could very well expose yourself as a fraud. And you could be a fraud. That big podcast invite hits your inbox and you blow the interview, whatever. Many people say they want to be a great writer or they want to make a dent in the world, but sometimes they don’t really.

It only takes one minute of serious introspection to realize my stupidity and cowardice in idea hoarding, and the obviously correct alternative:

I should just write down and publish all of the best ideas I’ve ever had, as quickly and casually as I can, in succession.

One of the idiotic assumptions of idea hoarding is that the best ideas deserve the most effort, and the closely related idea that effort will be positively correlated with quality, reach, resonance, or some such measure of success.

Both assumptions are patently false in the internet era. (Certainly for some types of work, quality and success both require great effort, but let’s restrict our attention to the mere statement and conveyance of an idea to other people.)

If it's truly a great idea, you should be able to say it in one sentence, publish that one sentence, and someone somewhere should love that sentence, and remember that sentence, and repeat that sentence to others, right? If not, how great could it really be? Of course, it’s stochastic. Maybe your sentence is great but nobody notices because of bad luck. Well, if it's a great idea, it certainly can’t be too harmed merely by a bad launch, right? If a poor launch really dooms it, then it can’t be very great.

Better yet, if it’s a great idea, you should revel in the joy of having to try again. You should be happy to publish it again the following week. You’re remembering it, digesting it; the more you have to beat your drum, the more you should be delighted by the greatness of the idea. If you’re not delighted to repeat the idea, over years even, you must not find it very great.

If it’s a great idea, it certainly brings some related implications. A great idea in one sentence will naturally, almost automatically, grow into a worthy blog post, perhaps even three different, related blog posts. If it’s really great, it won’t be fully actualized until it’s a book, at which point your one-sentence draft tomorrow will mean quite little. So there’s really no reason not to throw up a quick, even crappy one-sentence draft tomorrow. Either it’s a great idea and that one sentence won’t matter in the end, or it’s a bad idea and that one sentence won’t matter in the end.

If you're storing up a bunch of ideas that you think could be great, what is stopping you from simply writing them all down this week? And even publishing them immediately? (There is actually one problem stopping you, which is that you can’t remember all those “great” ideas you’ve been hoarding for years now. But the best ones really do resurface in the mind periodically, so next time one comes, just write it down immediately in one sentence). If you’re lucky, you might get a few of them in a flurry, especially once you open the floodgates and abolish the hoarding mentality.

We should all try to do this.

As I’ve now convinced myself (and hopefully you): For a truly great idea, virtually nothing can go wrong. And if anything goes so wrong that it prevents the idea from rising, then one can totally relax: It could not have been such a great idea in the first place.

We’ll probably find that many of the “great ideas” we think we have turn out to be not even good when we write them down.

But you might also find that one or two are even better than you thought. And regardless, at least we’re working on your best ideas. I can’t believe how obvious this is, yet how easy and natural it is do the opposite.

Stop hoarding your best ideas.

Just put them out there, immediately.

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