I’ve never considered myself an idea person or big thinker. I feel that I’m much better at iterating on ideas that are already laid out, making them stronger. I’ll often be able to take a few steps back and see a bigger picture, but even there I feel stronger at the tactical level than the strategic level.
I’ve often wondered if this is a shortcoming that I need to work on, or just a skill that I don’t have. I don’t have a good answer for that yet.
I have come to realize that I have a lot of ideas, habits, and practices that others don’t. They don’t seem original to me because I feel like they’ve come from other people, and I’ve just adopted them and put them into practice. However, others don’t have the same background, experience, and context that I do. To them, my ideas seem original.
I read a lot, and lately I’ve come across a few disparate writings that have helped me understand this a bit better.
In Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon says that we should always be “stealing” ideas from others. We should read great people (and the people they read) and synthesize their ideas. Our synthesis will be unique to us and will have value because of that. As much as there can be an echo chamber effect on the Internet, we are still not all reading the same material, watching the same talks, or attending the same conferences. So we will all have a unique combination of inputs to work from.
In How You Know, Paul Graham talks about how we often forget the details of things we read. We have thoughts and ideas, and we have limited memory of where they come from:
Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.
Everything you learn contributes to the network of neurons you carry around in your head. You’ll make connections that will make it easier for you to pick up other things later. Knowing one thing enables you to compare and contrast it to other things. In this sense, learning is always useful, whatever the subject.
The more we read and learn, the more perspective we can bring to the new problems that face us. That perspective turns into original ideas.
I think this is true of all of us, from the newest programmer to the most seasoned veteran. We all bring a different perspective to the table. Insights that seem obvious to us (“everybody knows that”) are original to those around us, because everybody does not know that.
As a result, we should not be afraid of sharing our ideas, even though they seem trivial. There might be someone else encountering those thoughts for the first time through you, and they can be life-changing. Please go out and share with the world. We need to know what you’re thinking.