How do you know an idea is worth pursuing?

If you’re like me, you have countless ideas. In fact, I’ve lost track of the number of ideas I’ve had for businesses, articles, books, screenplays (mostly sci-fi)… But how do you determine which ideas are worthy of  pursuing?

Nothing worth having in life comes easily. Just take finding a job as a great example. Very few people will be able to pick one perfect job, apply for it, get it, and never have to look anywhere else. Most people will have to apply for many jobs – perhaps even hundreds – before finding the one that “clicks.” It’s the same for scholarships if you’re in school. If you apply for just one, well, good luck. Apply for 300 and you’re likely to get one. It’s a numbers game.

Ideas work the same way. Every idea you have isn’t going to pan out. But if you pursue enough of them, one or two will. However, this is not a perfect metaphor. For every idea you choose to follow and pour energy and creativity into, there are other ideas that must be delayed or denied.

So here’s my question… How do you, personally, judge if an idea is “good enough” to warrant a dedicated pursuit that might preclude following other ideas with the same fervor? How do you decide which one is best?

For me, it’s a combination of things. First, paying jobs always get top billing when I’m choosing between a random idea and a project with a client. But when I’m choosing among different ideas that I’ve had – none of which guarantee pay – then it’s a little tougher. Which one stands the greater chance of success? Which one is more in line with my passions? And for that matter, what are my passions?

Larger companies approach this problem systematically. They will host focus groups and surveys to determine if their target audience is ready for their new product. Sometimes, despite all the pre-production research, a new idea still bombs. For an interesting look at this phenomenon, check out this article about the failure of New Coke.

There’s a good quote in the New Coke article that caught my eye:

“When you’re convinced you’re right, you tend to … push on regardless. If it’s a bad idea, it doesn’t take long for the verdict to be reached…”

Most of us don’t have the money to finance fancy focus groups and product testing. So how do you decide if an idea is worth pursuing? How do you look at your moments of inspiration with objectivity?

The “New Coke” article mentions that, despite the utter failure of its product, Coca Cola pushed forward and introduced new variations of Coke in latter years. The company turned its huge, blundering mistake into a lesson and used that lesson to diversify and gain an even greater market share.

Maybe that’s the trick: don’t be worried about bad ideas. Yes, do your research and think carefully before jumping into something new. But if you research an idea thoroughly, think it’s great, and it still bombs… Move on. Take lessons from the experience and apply them to the next idea. Some of us will be better at identifying a bad idea than others, but all of us – no matter how good or how poor our “idea gauge” may be – can learn from the negatives and keep moving forward.

What do you think?

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8 responses to “How do you know an idea is worth pursuing?

  1. Definitely we can learn from negatives. If we can’t we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. I also like to think we don’t have to make the same mistakes as everyone else in order to learn from them. Bad ideas can sometimes lead to good things, just not necessarily the way we intended them to. Also, some may just go nowhere. We have to accept that and move on.

  2. That’s a really good point about bad ideas leading to good things, even if it’s not what we intended at first. So many things in life happen exactly that way. Really great point there Teeni. Makes me think that if we’re afraid of failure, then we’ll miss out on some of the really cool things that can even come from a failure.

  3. I run through some of the same thought processes on occasion. I’m a creative person, and would like to write – I too have ideas for stories, plays, novels and such but I find myself starting a project and as soon as I hit the first creative stop in the process, I abandon it and move on to something else. I lose interest. I realize it wasn’t that great an idea in the first place.

    Well, those are the things I tell myself at least.

    Right now I have ideas for adapting two books – a novel and a bio – into full-length plays. I know they could probably never actually be produced, but the process would be fun. So why don’t I start them? I don’t want to put in all that work of adapting the books for nothing. So I don’t.

    I also have an idea for a book as sort of a “sequel” or next-step for a classic existing story. A book that would explain (fictionally) where the author of the classic story came up with his ideas (think Lewis Carrol, but not exactly). I actually came up with an outline, sketched out a number of story ideas, started in on the first chapter – and lost interest again. And there it sits. It’s not going to be any good, it won’t work, it’s a dumb idea, it’s not interesting….all those old ideas continue to crop into my head.

    Any suggestions on continuing that creative process?

  4. Oh man, I’ve been running ideas through my head and pouring them out to paper (and screen) since I was a kid. The problem is that most of them get started, just never finished. I had an idea for a CDRom based comic book years ago, way back in the early days of interactivity. Essentially I procrastinated until the industry caught up to my thinking…then did nothing.

    This I find ends up being a common problem among Creatives…too much creativity and not enough Chutzpah to complete it. I’ve found that getting a partner helps immensely. My fellow iconogeek, Jason, and I wrote a short film a couple years back which started as a ridiculous conversation we had during our ride home from work. This blossomed into a full-blown dark comedy idea that we pushed each other to finish. We wrote a treatment and then sent drafts of the script back and forth over email until we finished it. Of course, this was always intended to be filmed (which never happened) but still, we actually FINISHED something. BTW the iconogeek podcast is a similar beast, as Jason and I push each other to get our butts on Skype and do it.

    Essentially, a good rule I’ve found is that unless you are singularly focused, a lone Creative is going to have trouble finishing the idea. A partner not only lends support and nudging, but a different perspective. The end result is always better than if you did it yourself.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, my next great idea is waiting 😉

  5. Good words. And hard to live by, especially when a whole story takes SO LONG to write and polish! This year, I’m playing a numbers game: my goal is to come up with a new novel idea every day, a pitch paragraph every week, a proposal (synopsis + chapters) a month. And six novellas (for money) and six novels to shop.

    I think I can, I think I can…

  6. @Barry – I completely understand what you’re dealing with! I’ve been known to put aside creative projects for the same reason – a concern that I’ll invest all that time into something that comes to nothing. I think one helpful solution would be to look at things the way Teeni suggested – that you never know what might evolve from an idea. It might not be the book you’re envisioning, but another idea might be sparked while you’re engrossed in that project that leads to something you would have never done otherwise… The mystery of that might be enough to pull me back to working on a few projects that are sitting around.

    @Chuck – That is VERY good advice. It is much harder to be motivated when you are a “lone” creative. I used to write screenplays for a children’s program, and I was part of a group of writers who contributed to the program. It helped so much to have that extra encouragement and motivation.

    @Spy – The numbers game sounds like a worthwhile experiment. A lot of it really does boil down to that…Am I willing to pursue enough ideas, submit enough proposals and queries, to finally find the one that takes?

  7. Apparently, I’m one of the only people on this entire planet who actually liked New Coke and was sad to see it go.

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