Monday, August 20, 2018

Research ideas, part 2: This could get ugly

I have a lot of bad ideas. Literally thousands of them. Not just bad, but terrible ideas. And, they are the secret to my success in this job.

As researchers, ideas are what fuel our progress. This fact is both exhilarating and intimidating, and where you lie on that spectrum of emotions is probably closely tied to how reliable of a process you have for generating and developing your ideas. Last month, we confronted the fallacy that generating ideas is a “magical” process of waiting for inspiration to strike, and we explored systematic ways to produce ideas. But, if you do research, you know that having ideas isn’t enough – you need to have good ideas.  This month, we’ll confront a second fallacy – that this process involves brilliant people generating brilliant ideas on the first try.

Adam Grant is a Professor of Management at the Wharton School, where his research includes studying the hallmarks of creativity.  One conclusion that he draws from his work is that “The more output you churn out, the more variety you get, and the better your chances of stumbling on something truly original.” In other words – if you want to have good ideas, you need to have a lot of ideas. And, chances are that if you have a lot of ideas, you are going to have a lot of bad ideas.

How then, do we separate the few good ideas from the overwhelming excess of bad ideas? Next month, I’ll dive into the specifics of this process, but before we get there we need to start with the obvious first step – you need to be willing look closely, even though most of what you see is going to be ugly.

While crucial, this step is surprisingly difficult.  Why is that?  The easy answer is that you might feel like you’re wasting your time looking at bad ideas. I want to challenge you to consider some other reasons you might find this task difficult (I can list these because I struggle with every one of them):

  • If my idea is bad, I’ll feel unintelligent
  • If other people see my bad idea, they will think that I’m unintelligent
  • If this idea is bad, it might mean I’m just bad at coming up with ideas and I will never have good ideas
  • The stakes are high – I am relying on my ideas to secure a fellowship or grant, a job, or tenure 

Now that we’ve got all that out in the open, how do we move forward? A big part of the answer lies in how you view your abilities and intelligence.  Carol Dweck, a renowned Professor of Psychology at Stanford, hypothesizes that there are two ways that we can view our intelligence and abilities:

Fixed mindset: Intelligence and talent are fixed traits that are set at birth.  These factors alone determine the level of success you can achieve.

Growth mindset: Intelligence and talent are just the starting point and can be improved thorough hard work. Effort and persistence result in growth, which leads to success.

A detailed unpacking what this means for us as researchers and people is a topic for another blog post, but hopefully you can see the difference that this makes in how you approach your bad ideas.  From the fixed mindset, having bad ideas not only judges your current abilities, but also defines your future potential for success (or lack thereof). That’s terrifying! In contrast, the growth mindset allows you to take an honest look at both the good and bad, as you know that there is a path forward to improvement, no matter what your starting point or the bad ideas you have along the way.

Another way to think about this is to view doubt as an essential step in the creative process.  Adam Grant highlights, “…there are two different kinds of doubt. There's self-doubt and idea-doubt. Self-doubt is paralyzing. It leads you to freeze. But idea-doubt is energizing. It motivates you to test, to experiment, to refine…” The fixed mindset traps you at self-doubt, whereas the growth mindset allows you to skip over this step and focus on idea-doubt.

Next month, I’ll discuss the process that we use to evaluate and refine our ideas, with the goal of quickly discarding the bad ideas and focusing our energy on making the good ideas better. In the meantime, spend some time observing how you think about your ideas – when a new idea pops into your head, do you race to look closely and investigate the potential weaknesses, or do you hide it away to think about later? Challenge yourself to push toward a growth mindset and see if this makes a difference.  The faster you can move through the bad ideas, the more quickly you will find the good ones!

Have thoughts or experiences you want to share? Think my approach to this topic is itself a bad idea? Leave a comment and let’s discuss!