Why Most People Miss the Brilliant Idea

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I’m tired of hearing people talk about “quantity vs. quality,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. [You: “Really? You’re tired of that? You’re hearing this conversation so much that you’re actually tired of it? What kind of lame parties are you going to, man? I never hear people talking about ‘quantity vs. quality!'”] Well, perhaps I hang out with a more erudite crowd than you. But the point is this: quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, when it comes to creativity, quantity leads to quality.

When I was producing the sketch comedy TV show Almost Live!, we had a regular segment called The Late Report, which was a fake newscast (like the Weekend Update segment on Saturday Night Live). Every week, each of ten writers wrote at least twenty jokes apiece for this segment. That’s upwards of 200 jokes—out of which we chose eight.

Eight out of 200.

Now, I’m no math whiz, but that’s fewer than half!

[You: “Wow. You guys must have been really crappy comedy writers!”] [Me: “If by ‘crappy’ you mean ‘multiple Emmy Award winning,’ then yes, we were ‘crappy.'”]

The point is that the key to generating creative ideas is to generate lots of ideas! In the arts as well as in business, the most successful innovators tend to produce an incredible number of ideas—most of which don’t make the final cut. Linus Pauling (who won Nobels in both chemistry and peace, so there!) said, “The best way to get a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

A compelling case for this is made by Frans Johansson in his wonderful book, The Medici Effect. He points out, for example:

  • the best way to see who has written groundbreaking scientific papers is to look at who has published the most scientific papers
  • the best predictor for having a grant proposal approved is the total number of grant proposals written
  • classical composers tend to produce most of their masterpieces during the same period when they produced most of their failures

In each case, quality was a product of quantity.

Paul McCartney estimates that he and John Lennon wrote upwards of 100 songs before they came up with their first good one. Thankfully, they didn’t give up at number 99.

In the case of Almost Live!, 192 out of 200 jokes were discarded. Now, some people (the glass-half-empty people) might look at that and say, “That’s a 96% failure ratio. If you guys had real jobs, you’d be fired!” The tragedy is that, in many cases, these people would be right. That’s because in business, we tend to punish failure. And that’s where we get it wrong.

See, those 192 jokes that didn’t make it were not failures. They were necessary steps toward the eventual success: the eight jokes that made it onto the air. We all know about Edison and his search for a successful light bulb filament. To some, he failed some thousand (or ten thousand, depending on whose story you read) times. Edison’s take, though, was “No, I’ve simply discovered a thousand (or ten thousand) things that don’t work.” I wonder how quickly some corporate boss would have fired him.

So what do I want you to do with this concept? Well, the next time you’re looking for an idea—for your team, for your business, for your relationship—I want you to generate lots of ideas! Don’t stop at one or two. Come up with twenty. And if twenty come to you easily, then come up with 200. Because you never know—if you stop too soon, the brilliant one, the one that would have made you rich and famous, might have been the next one.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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  • Patrick says:


    Reminds me of my previous career as a sports photographer. I’d burn up 6-8 rolls of film to get one GREAT photo for publication.

    Well done, Bill….thanks for the reminder!

  • Patrick — Yes, that’s exactly it! And I’m guessing that the reason you were successful as a sports photog is because your focus was on the one great photo, not the 6-8 rolls of film it may have taken to get it.

  • Patrick says:

    Absolutely! I’m sharing this with my readers….hope you don’t mind.

  • Patrick says:

    On, and on the 6-8 rolls:

    Back in the day, we bulk-loaded canisters, so it was only about $1 a roll for b/w film.

    Just as you suggest in your post, there came a day when the editor started focusing too much on the 6-8 rolls instead of the GREAT shots I consistently delivered. So he decided to ration the film – 1 roll per game.

    So I went to the local camera store and bought 5 more (about $4/roll at the time), proceeded to the game, and brought back an AWESOME flying tackle shot that was used front page of the section.

    Editor followed up the next day with a comment along the lines of, “see, you didn’t need more than 1 roll.” That’s when I informed him the shot on Page 1 came from roll #5 from the batch I bought, and handed him the receipt and a reimbursment form.

    He paid it. And I never heard another thing about film rationing.

  • I would love to get one of these for my daughter cause she works so hard to get 4.0's and work plus take care of me since I have had MS for over 20 years

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