Just a random guy

Strong vs. weak ideas


I had an interesting thought during my regular morning S.S.S routine where I came to the realization that most of the ideas I generate are not, as my brain put it, "strong." What exactly does this mean though, how can an idea be strong? How can an idea be weak? Well, you could think of strong as a well thought out or generally sound idea; that's a valid definition. However, I like to think of it as an idea that can "stand on its own two legs" or "pull itself up by its own bootstraps."

Without speaking figuratively, an idea that has a clear foundation would be considered strong to me. For example, let's say I have a website (like this blog!) and I want to redesign it. A weak idea would be, "I want it to be more responsive on mobile." This is weak because there's no substance or greater description of what "more responsive on mobile" actually means. A stronger version of this would be, "I want the main site layout to go from three columns to one on mobile."

This idea has many more words than the previous, yes, but it also describes exactly what should happen when the site is transitioning between desktop and mobile platforms. If I had to implement this myself, I would have a much better starting point than "make it more responsive." So how do we create or generate strong ideas? We could just be more verbose, of course, and generate erroneously long ideas like,

I want the main site layout to go from three columns to one containing the header, body, and footer in order on mobile. The header and footer should take up 20% vertical space (in total), while the body should take up the remaining 80%.

Sure this more descriptive, but this is no longer an idea. It's a set of instructions. These are valid in their own right and could be especially useful when, for instance, hiring a freelance web designer to re-design your site. But trying to explain this idea (or these instructions) to someone with little-to-no technical background would prove trivial if not futile. This is because a strong idea should be simple, able to be interpreted by anyone of any technical skill or background. If you are unable to do this, your idea is not strong. Here's another example of a strong idea, "Find the answer to anything using your computer or phone."

In theory, this is the idea of a search engine; to find the information you're looking for on your computer or phone. Of course we're glancing over the technical aspects of what this actually means and how it sounds more like a pitch for hover boards or flying cars, but you get the idea. A strong idea says exactly what it does without over simplifying or over explaining.

You may be thinking that these "strong ideas" sound more like elevator pitches or buzz words to attract investors or hopeful customers, and you would be somewhat correct. Ideas with large plans and broad scopes tend to sound very "original iPod advertisement-y." But this is mostly a problem of over embellishment or over simplification. The more you simplify or abstract the purpose of a large project, the more magical it seems.

To convert a weak idea into a strong one, break it down into its smallest, most core feature or reason of existence. From there re-attach the bits of information that make it as feasible as the original idea was. After you've done this, you can begin to "stress-test" by explaining it to others or re-teaching it to yourself from the point-of-view of a novice or the five-year old version of yourself who's just barely interested in the idea. Generating strong ideas is much the same, but instead you start with the core, rather than chipping away until you find it.

Something to remember is that not every idea needs to be strong or well though out or feasible. Ideas come in many shapes and sizes and levels of possibility which should be embraced. A weak idea is not synonymous with a bad one. Do not scrap an idea because it is weak. Instead, think about how you can make it stronger and stronger. If you're having trouble with this, I highly recommend watching the interviews and lectures of Richard Feynman, a great scientist and teacher.