Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Is Your Idea Any Good? Here’s How to Tell…

How do you know if something is a good idea? Do you trust your gut? Ask other people? When is the right time to go all in on a creative endeavor?

Is This a Good Idea? Here's How to Tell...

For the longest time, I misunderstood how the creative process worked. I thought brilliance was a crapshoot: you either got lucky or you didn’t. To me, it was a product of throwing as many things as possible against the wall and seeing what stuck. I assumed that to come up with a brilliant idea the best thing to do was keep “throwing” things.

Certainly, there is some truth to this. Edison apparently came up with a thousand ways to make a lightbulb before he found one that worked. Master artists average a minimum of ten years of practicing their craft before they produce brilliant work. We know genius takes time.

But is that all there is to it?

Hustle smarter

The truth is ideation is not just about attempts. It’s also about process. I see this often with who just keep trying to “make it.” They’re waiting for a break, pounding the pavement, hoping the hustle will pay off. But they’re kidding themselves.

Hear me loud and clear on this: There is smart hustle. And there is stupid hustle.

Stupid hustle says “keep trying, and some day all your hard work will pay off.” It tells you that it’s their fault for not understanding how good you are and to just keep going for it. This is the American Dream, the story we think is the success of every great artist, entrepreneur, and athlete. But that’s not the whole story.

Smart hustle isn’t just about trying stuff until something works. It’s about intelligent trial and error. It’s about taking feedback and using it to make your work better. To keep doing the things that work and quit the things that won’t.

As singer Colbie Caillat remarked when she was rejected by American Idol early on in her career: “I was shy,” she recalled. “I was nervous. I didn’t look the greatest. I wasn’t ready for it yet. I was glad, when I auditioned, that they said no.”

In other words, they were right to reject her. She wasn’t that good yet. But that rejection fueled the young singer’s drive. It made her want to be better. Why? Afterwards, she didn’t just keep trying things the way she had been doing them before. She took the feedback, applied it to her craft, and found a way to succeed.

And if that’s what it takes for a platinum artist to succeed in the very competitive music industry, it’s probably won’t take anything less than that for you or me.

Quitters are winners

Seth Godin talks about this in his short but powerful book, The Dip, in which he debunks the common myth that “quitters never win.” That’s not true, he says:

Winners quit fast, quit often, and quit without guilt.

Quitters win all the time:

  • T.S. Eliot quit his job as a bank teller to write poems.
  • Jimmy Page quit a promising career as a studio musician to start Led Zeppelin.
  • Mark Zuckerberg quit college to launch Facebook.

Some of the world’s highest performers quit their way to success by discarding the things they weren’t good at or didn’t love so they could do something better. Everyone has something that they can be best in the world at. You just have to quit your way to it.

So what does this look? How do you decide when something is a good idea and when something is a bad idea? It’s a process.

Experiment-Chase-Program

Years ago, when I was a marketing director at a nonprofit, my friend Mark Almand gave me some great advice. “At our company,” he said, “we never go all in on any single idea. We test it.”

“How?” I asked.

“Simple,” he said. “We call it experiment-chase-program. Before we spend a bunch of money on a new strategy or create a whole new division, we run an experiment. We set a goal and use limited resources to try to reach that goal.

“If it works, we move on to the ‘chase’ stage, which requires us to double down, spending some more money and time chasing this strategy. If we continue to see results, say over the course of a month or quarter maybe, we’ll move to ‘program.’ This is where turn this idea or strategy into some ongoing effort. We make it part of the business plan or marketing strategy. It gets a regular line item in the budget.

“Of course, we continue to measure how well it’s doing, but we realize at this stage there will be ups and downs, and so we evaluate on a less frequent basis. But if at any point, we think the program is no longer working, we go back to experimenting.”

Experiment. Chase. Program. A simple concept that applies to just about everything:

  • You would never propose marriage on the first date. You’d go out, and if it worked, you’d continue doing that for a while — for months, if not years. And then if you were still in love and wanted to spend the rest of your lives together, you take the next step and get married.
  • You wouldn’t quit your job after your first sale. You’d slowly begin replacing your income and when it made sense, you’d make the switch.
  • You wouldn’t expect to get a book deal the same day you started your blog. You’d take your time building an audience, and when you were ready, you’d approach a publisher.

As you may know by now, I’m not a big fan of the “take the leap” strategy that some  people champion when it comes to pursuing a pasion. Rather, I endorse a “build a bridge” approach. Take your time chasing a dream, and it will likely last a lot longer.

And so it is with your big idea, the book you want to write, that business you want to start. Don’t go all in until you do the following first.

1. Experiment: Test the idea

Before you write the book or launch the business, start small. Begin with a habit. Try doing it for half an hour to an hour every day for 30 days and see if you still like it. See if you even have the discipline to do it every day.

Author Shauna Niequist once told me early on in my writing journey, “Most people think they have a whole book on their computer, when in fact all they have is a chapter.” She was talking about herself, but she was, of course, talking about me, too.

If you’ve caught the writing bug, as was the case with me, consider starting a blog and writing on it once a week before you run off and try to write a book. If you can’t do it on a blog, you won’t be able to do it in a book.

Run an experiment. Set a timeline for it, have an intended outcome, and create some consequences for what happens if you hit your goal or don’t. If you don’t, you need to keep experimenting. If you do, move on to the next step.

2. Chase: Explore the idea and see if it scales

Once you’ve seen some success and realize that this thing you want to do is more than just a good idea — it’s something you have to do — then it’s time to chase it down.

If you were writing for 30 minutes a day, now it’s time to start writing for two hours. It’s time to start marketing and maybe even selling something. If you did it for 30 days, now up the ante to 90 days.

Make everything harder and riskier to see if you continue to enjoy the process. See if the idea holds up to scrutiny to 100 strangers. Get people to read your work, critique your business idea, give you feedback on your form and technique.

This is how we get better. We invest more of ourselves into the process and figure out what we’re still doing wrong.

I applied this principle after seeing results of my efforts with this blog — people were subscribing — and so I decided to try to sell something after a year of maintaining that habit. It was still an experiment but one that was a little less of a pipe dream than “I want to write a book!”

I conducted a survey, asking my audience what content they wanted, and they said “blogging help” so I wrote a short, 10,000-word eBook in a couple of weeks and sold it. I said, “If it sells 100 copies, then I’ll keep doing this. If not, I’ll try to find another way to support my family.”

500 people bought that eBook in two days. So I kept going. I kept chasing. And a year later, that Big Moment finally came… two years into the process.

3. Program: Commit to the long game

At this point, you can go all in.

You can quit your job or write that book or whatever. It doesn’t have to take two years, but it won’t happen all once, either. I quit my job after I’d run a number of experiments and chased the things that worked (books, courses, blogging) while quitting the things that didn’t (consulting, coaching, software). I found a way that worked for me and built a system around that.

I created a program.

This isn’t just about writing or quitting your job or any of that. It’s about how you take a big idea and turn it into something that just might work. It’s also a way to try just about anything without shooting down “bad ideas” or throwing away money and time at things that you think are good ideas that just don’t seem to pay off. The truth is, nobody knows if an idea is good or bad until it works or fails.

The other day one of our team members said, “Hey! How about we do THIS?”

I said, “Good idea. Let’s try it. But first, let’s experiment.”

Do you jump first and ask questions later? What’s your process for vetting new ideas? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Nguyen Nguyen

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. You must have been through so many things in life to know all the things written above.
    “Edison apparently came up with a thousand ways to make a filament lightbulb before he found one that worked”
    vong tay da mat ho

  • Jay Warner

    I like the concept of “experiment-chase-program”. It simplifies the process for testing an idea and finding out if it’s viable before investing fully in it. Sometimes I think I have too many ideas and I don’t know which ones to follow. I become paralyzed by the fear of failing. This concept is a way to try and fail before investing too much time, energy and money, which can then, in turn, be expended on the ideas that win.

  • Great post! Love the “bridge” idea. I work with a lot of people who are dispassionate about their current jobs and are tempted to “quit to chase.” The bridge idea is a perfect description. I did this when I was in Corporate America. I hate my job, but took time and built a strategy where I worked for two years evenings and weekends before I was able to quit my day job. Now I love what I do. Thanks again Jeff for the incredible insights.

    Chuck
    http://www.chuckwrites.com

  • Mignon Fuchs

    It is as if I have been waiting for this article. Speaks straight from my heart.

  • Sarah Simmons

    This is super helpful, as always. I’m learning how much I over analyze and strive for perfection, often to the detriment of getting things out into the world. The experiment-chase-program concept makes so much sense, because it forces action with the understanding that it’s not going to be quite perfect. Thanks for this, Jeff!

    • Thanks, Sarah. I love your writing. Don’t lose your taste, but don’t deprive us of your gift, either. It’s a balance that one never fully achieves but always strives for.

  • Jeremy Barlow

    Jeff I saw or heard you on Fizzle almost 2 years ago and I started writing again at that point because of you. I’ve learned a lot in the intervening time and taken a few side trips along the way, but thanks in no small part to that appearance and what you said, this week I’m self-publishing my first book It’s just a collection of short stories I wrote in January. It will be followed shortly by my first novel and additional novels later this year. There are other writing related projects in the works too, but thanks for that appearance on Fizzle. It started me on the path I am on today. It is a path that has seen great progress in the last 79 days.

    • Oh, wow. That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing, Jeremy!

  • Ian Martinez

    Thanks Jeff. This explanation was really helpful to me. It was simple and clear. Now comes application. It’s time for me to experiment.

  • Ben Weaver

    You are reading my mail! Writing began as an experiment for me. I began with a timer set to 20 minutes and then a goal to write 100,000 words in a summer. I always viewed it as a “Let me try this…I may hate it.” I fell in love with it and keep pushing forward I wrote about it recently in the practice of building a simple habit that can change your life… http://journeyworthtaking.org/habits-can-change-your-life/

    Thanks for all you do, Jeff. To say your words are a source of encouragement is an understatement. I’m going to keep at it…

  • Charles Robinson

    Jeff, great post, very well thought out. Over a 45-year career I’ve jumped quickly once (and fell hard), then experimented – chased – programmed twice, both of which were successful. There’s a big difference between being timid and being well-reasoned. Thanks!

  • My dad always told me to ‘jump in – learn to swim later’. Which I’ve done many times. There is nothing like the learning process when your life depends on it (so to speak). Some things have been successful, some not. Either way, I’ve learned a lot of valuable things.

  • Thanks Jeff. I’ve been struggling lately with my fiction writing, which I’ve done for years, though it doesn’t feel like my skills have developed that much. I get so much more traction (and income) from my nonfiction work, yet good fiction seems like a magical thing, and a worthy pursuit. But I keep flirting with abandoning it, because I might not have what it takes. Anyway, thanks for moving the walls on the ideas of what to pursue and how to go about it.

  • Danielle Bernock

    I hope I am not doing the stupid hustle. This reminded me of my second post on my blog wondering if the timing was right. http://www.daniellebernock.com/what-time-is-it-mr-fox/

  • I’m always encouraged and challenged!

  • Niki Hardy

    Thanks Jeff. This has given me the confidence (and the kick up the bum) to put my 16,000 word eBook out there. It’s the basis for a book proposal I want to write so I now know I have to test it out!! Thanks

  • Great post. I have somethings to digest. Every blogger, writer, professional says start with “500” words a day. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. So, what is my full-hardy resistance to the daily work? It’s time I commit to the grind. I bet I like it. I think I’ll try an experiment, beginning today.

  • Love it, Jeff – experimenting is everything. And the feedback we get from others is so important to use to enhance our work, test if it’s working, and modify it where we can.

  • Dylan Cornelius

    Your suggestion is supported by the Lean Startup approach to product development, which says do a little and test it with potential customers, then tweak the product based on their feedback.

  • Matthew Herrera

    Great stuff Jeff! What about multiple ideas? How would you determine which idea to pursue if you’ve gained some positive feedback at the “Experiment” stage and are interested in say, 2, different businesses? I feel I may be spending too much time batting between which of my “good ideas” to pursue. Thanks!

  • shiwangi agarwal

    OMG, this post is like a silver lining in my life. I really needed to read something of this sort to feel motivated again and less pressurised by the whole process of writing. Thank you very much Jeff!

  • Victor Moreau

    I don’t agree when you say that if you can’t write on your blog everyday, you can’t write a book. I’m currently writing my 4th and 5th books (yeah, I’m a multitask guy) and yet I find myself completely unable to write on a blog more than once a week, even less.
    The rest of the article is, however, solid logic. Thanks for the reminder

  • “The Dip” by Seth Godin and applications thereof pushed me to make good business decisions. I’ve given this book to my clients as well. It’s counter-intuitive to accept quitting as the right business move but there are times when it will really pay off.