Real talk. Sometimes, you come up with some pretty terrible ideas.
Sometimes. But not always.
It’s not uncommon to struggle with your own perceptions of your ideas, however. Not only are we ultimately our own worst critics, but it is also very easy to find ourselves “stuck” in one idea with no presumable way of seeing out or around it.
When you’re trying to come up with an idea you feel confident about, how do you measure what a “good” idea looks like? Answers to this question will vary depending on the individual. But in general, good ideas tend to be things we are excited about, things that interest us, things we can think and plan and work through.
If everyone’s definition of a “good” idea is different, then how do you know if your “bad” ideas are a fault of your own ability — or something else?
Where do bad ideas come from?
The same place good ideas come from: Your own brain.
Ideas can be inspired by many different things. And when you first grasp at the faintest glimmer of a possibility, it almost always seems like the best idea you have ever had, if not the best idea you will have for the rest of your life.
What often hurts is the moment you mention or bring that idea to someone else’s attention and they shake their heads. “Not a good idea,” they say. What? But it sounded so good to you! In your head, at least.
This is fine and manageable if it only happens every now and then. But everyone will most likely face long stretches of time when they feel they just keep coming up with bad ideas over and over again.
That messes with your head more than anything. Will you ever come up with a “good” idea ever again?
The truth is, good and bad ideas show up at the front gate of your mind all the time. Every day, almost. Sometimes constantly, one right after the other.
Some days, you’re going to have a few decent ideas and plenty of awful ones. Some days you’re not going to have any good ideas at all, and those days aren’t going to be fun days. It’s going to be much easier to get down on yourself, to listen to your internal monologue telling you all the ways you’re not good at what you’re doing and never will be.
It’s normal to have those thoughts — as long as you know they’re false beliefs, not facts.
There are many reasons writers become accustomed to feeling awful about their ideas (and themselves). Most, if not all, of these things are the direct or indirect result of other people. Maybe someone tells you in a not very nice way that your ideas aren’t good and it makes you question the worth of every idea you have ever had.
Or maybe you become discouraged by watching how other people seem to so easily come up with an endless string of ideas while you’re constantly banging your head against your laptop wondering why you can’t seem to come up with even one decent thing.
While this might not be the advice you want to hear, here it is anyway: If you’re having a hard time coming up with ideas because you are worried about what other people will think or say about them, pretty much the only thing you can do to “correct” this is to just … get over it.
I’m not just saying this because I don’t want to help or because I don’t have a better answer. This is advice my manager gave me when I was struggling with some of my new responsibilities at my day job. I was becoming responsible for coming up with a lot of ideas in a short amount of time, a “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks” kind of strategy. Something I was not used to.
And I was so concerned about coming up with “bad” ideas that I started to let my self doubt get in the way of me being able to do my job effectively. I had to kick aside my pride and admit that I was struggling with the work not because it was “too hard” or that I was “dumb” but because I had zero confidence in my ability to produce any good, usable ideas.
My manager pretty much told me the only advice in my situation was to “get over it and figure it out.” And it wasn’t mean-spirited, either. The truth is that even the mentors and higher-ups in your life can’t do your work for you. If you don’t have confidence, a superior might be able to give you the tools and words of encouragement to help you get to a better place, but you actually have to use those tools and ride on that encouragement to make real changes in your life and in yourself.
So maybe today you need some encouraging words — maybe some tips. Hey, I’m good at that. I can give you these things. You might not like them, but my job isn’t to give you things you like, it’s to give you things that will help you make changes and write better/more/etc. Right?
Let’s start with this: Your ideas aren’t that bad. Not all of them. Not all the time.
The weird and sometimes frustrating thing about ideas is that there will always be someone out there interested in yours. Everyone wants their content to go viral, to “make a big difference,” to reach tens of thousands of people every time.
Well some good ideas never do that. Some good ideas reach small audiences who turn around and spread those same ideas, and that’s how growth happens. It’s a chain reaction.
Just because your idea does not reach millions of people does not mean it is a bad idea. The point of putting your ideas out into the world is not to get you All The Attention. It’s to promote an idea you believe in. And you should be proud of that idea whether it makes the rounds or not (of course, as long as it’s not an idea aimed at hurting anyone else — that’s a discussion for a separate space).
Own your ideas. That’s some of the best advice anyone has ever given me about my work. If you think it’s good and you are proud of it, then celebrate it, even if no one else does.
Also: We, as a general group of creative individuals, need to do a better job of not tying our self worth so tightly into our ideas and our work. Because the truth is, bad ideas happen, not a single person on this Earth is immune to them. If you do come up with an idea you are proud of and it completely tanks, falls apart, doesn’t get you the results you were hoping for, guess what? All that means is that it wasn’t your best idea, or an idea that was well-timed or well-placed.
A bad idea does not mean you are a bad person or bad at creating things. A bad idea has nothing to do with how “capable” or “worthy” or “smart” you are. A bad idea is just a bad idea. You may have come up with it, but all you have to do is shrug and say, “Well, that idea was terrible. I can definitely do better than that.”
And then go off and do better than that!
A writer’s only job isn’t to write — we also have to come up with ideas we can then transform into tangible stories other people can consume. It’s not an easy life or career. But hey — if it were easy, anyone could do it well.
Your ideas are not trash. You, also, are not trash.
Good ideas or bad, what matters is that you are throwing things against that wall, figuring out what can work for you and what can’t. That’s much better than sitting around doing nothing. Right? Right. Now go do something. Write. Don’t judge your own ideas before they have the chance to grow on you. Take a chance. Be brave. Be free.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.