Bridging the gap between valuable and novel in ideas

It’s easy to confuse unique or valuable ideas for good ones, but the truth is that the very best ideas must be some combination of the two.

The printing press wasn’t necessarily an entirely unique idea – Asia had been using paper and ink via wooden blocks as a printing technique for some time – but it quickly proved to be a more efficient, and therefore valuable, idea for the emerging world of capitalism and middle-class literacy, thanks to Gutenberg.

Similarly, the advent of the all-in-one, personal computer by Apple in 1976 was not the most valuable idea at the time, but it’s uniqueness sparked an entirely new industry which rapidly grew into the world of tablets and smartphones we have today.

Yet we still find ourselves enamored with our ideas when they spark us as being either novel or valuable. We can become so blinded by one of these intuitions that we fail to test whether or not the idea meets both criteria.

This is, of course, not to say that unique ideas which are not valuable, and worthwhile ideas which are not unique, are not themselves important in some way.

The catch here is that any idea can be evolved into meeting both criteria. To do this, we must identify which side of the bridge an idea has started on, then build the rest of the bridge to fill the gap. That familiar notion of creativity being about “connecting things” resonates loudly on this point.

Look no further than the invention of the practical lightbulb by Thomas Edison and his team as a shining example. At the time of the invention, the technology for electricity (and even lightbulbs) had existed. These concepts were not novel. What Edison wanted was to create a more practical and reliable type of lightbulb, one more novel than what existed.

Edison’s team had the valuable idea, they merely needed to find a way to bring about the unique part of it (the carbon filaments inventor and member of Edison’s team, Lewis Latimer, came up with).

It’s easy to get swept away the moment our instinct tells us an idea is good and truly creative.

What’s less easy – and arguably more important – is taking the time to determine whether the idea is worthwhile, valuable, or both; and if not both: what it would take to make it so. This is an elegant way of viewing creative thinking: not as the sheer construction of brand new and novel ideas from nothing, but the process of connecting the parts required to make an existing idea both novel and worthwhile.

To have better ideas, focus on which side they fall on (novel or valuable), then work towards building connections to make them meet both criteria.