In Praise of Bad Ideas

A recent article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, “Creation Myth,” is ostensibly about how Steve Jobs walked into Xerox’s secret lab in 1979 (in exchange for giving Xerox a crate of Apple stock) and walked out with everything he needed to re-think cutting edge technology for use (and monetization) in the real world.  It turns out that Xerox actually invented the personal computer and the mouse, but it was Jobs who realized how to take it to the people, with panache and at a price-point that lead to today’s Apple (and in some ways to this blogosphere and our virtual connection).

The part of the article that caught my attention personally was a quote of Dean Simonton, a psychologist I read closely when doing my doctoral work on creativity.  He says, “The more successes there are, the more failures there are as well.”  This is about the nature of innovation, where true innovators have hundreds of ideas… and therefore hundreds of bad ideas.  Gladwell underscores the point that creativity is messy and inefficient; a process that is difficult to manage.

One key point to keep in mind, especially if you are a creative sort—although I encourage us to see parenting (and relating) as essentially “creative” endeavors:  give yourself space to have plenty of misfires and terrible ideas.  An ethic of playfulness, freedom to fail and come up with awful ideas opens the possibility of real originality, innovation and insight.  It is, however, also important to cultivate a discerning mind with which to later sort the million minnows from the “keeper” ideas.  This can be a daunting challenge (as a writer and filmmaker I was taught to “kill my darlings” meaning that the prized idea may be smart or funny, and yet not work for a piece as a whole).

At an individual level, perhaps we need to cultivate both the Xerox PARC, shaman/artist/poet/priestess aspect of the mind and then invite in the Steve Jobs, rationalist/pragmatist/scientist/accountant part of the mind to evaluate what is of use, and how to best put it to use.  At a collective level perhaps the era of the singular genius (Newton, Picasso, Einstein) is giving way to the collective genius of the group (social networks, team projects, diverse collaboration and connection amongst strong individual points of view).  If so, perhaps we will arrive at optimal parenting in our homes by reconceptualizing the global village as a mind-set and a way of living and loving, and not just a catch phrase or a celebrity-driven “we are the world,” sort of song.

If parenting is an attitude of relating in the service of being, then perhaps what is “created” in this archetypal relationship is reciprocal; the child forms a self in the context of being cared for (learning trust and finding her unique voice and identity) while the parent forms her soul (learning that “she” is not limited to the singular identity of who she thought she was, but rather finds her true Self in the group, in nature, in the mystery of what just is).  Much as baby and mother work together to effect the first great transition of birth, the psyche and mind of the parent works together with that of the child to “create” soul in the parent.  In this way parenting is an organic and readily present spiritual practice—one that, like yoga class, allows us to be on our own matt, and at the same time connected with each other.

Or maybe this is just a half-baked idea?  Or maybe it needs to be cooked the rest of the way in our collective vessel?

As our individual and collective narcissism heals, perhaps we do not need to be famous, validated, rich or to found Apple in order to invent a new idea of ourselves—one in which the way things are does not necessarily need to be changed, and where creativity lies in learning from, and adjusting to, what already is.

While we find “geniuses” in every Apple store, the root meaning of the word genius is “angel.”

Thus our children are geniuses, but they are all fantastic, just like every tree is splendid and every neuron potentially “smart” (smart if it can connect to a lot of other neurons, the connections being the genius of the mind, not the neurons themselves).  Might the big idea be the consciousness that has thought us into being?  Might not learning to love and connect be the true balm for our alienation, the adjustment to our misperception that we are alone in an uncaring universe?

Our children reach for us, reaching to exceed their grasp; our minds must also reach to the realm of the unseen and the intangible; our minds might then realize that we are in a Xerox PARC of connectivity and potential fellowship.  We might look back at these times and realize that Twitter and FaceBook were the early stammerings of collective consciousness—the “web” quasi-materializing along threads of unseen connections that were there before technology allowed us to realize it, before we began to grasp that we dream the same big dream.

So, as we awaken within this reality, perhaps the big idea is to learn from what is, rather than trying to make the dream go our ego’s way—intuiting that a deeper intelligence came up with our collective situation, and that this teacher is our truer, our penultimate, our unifying Self.

The victors write history—a history of money and conquest, of carbon footprints on the sands of time, but the Ferdinands of this world just sit quietly and smell the flowers.  Who’s to say which, Ferdinand or Conquistador, is better for our children, better for our world, better for our truest success?  In the end it’s fine that Steve Jobs made a bunch of money bringing us toys we grasp like blankeys—they are blocks and Legos, Barbies and Kens, proto-tools that allow us to connect and continually change the world; yet the so-called “change” is really the re-discovery that we are, and always have been, all connected.

What “invention” will allow us to discover that we are deeply connected with the tree, the spider, the bird and with all our collective children?  Machines are metaphors… mirrors of our inner state made tangible.  The wonder of the web is the wonder of dewdrops on a primordial spider’s ancient masterwork as the sun rises, eons before cave dwellers ever smudged ochre on limestone.  We quest and conceptualize, monetize and lionize… all toward the soft and elemental discovery that the genius that made an apple and a tree trumps every human imitation—and does so every time.

Nature self-selects, thus Steve Jobs is a sort of priest tapped to serve the God of what just is.  The rest of us as well make the offering, the sacrifice, the meal, the joke, the communication, the machine, the money, the sacred space and the sacred time—but it’s the genius of a higher order that “creates” our children that “decides” what works, determines what advances, what remains obscure.  We make the offering, but genius decides what is pleasing to the group.

So, whoever came up with it, what better invention than Love?  Who thought of that?  Who can corner that market?  What mysterious abundance feeds our hearts to pour out love even in the context of fear, exhaustion, unrequited wishes and losses?  Whoever invented love, perhaps we might access our inner Steve Jobs and see what it’s really good for—maybe we will make it readily available, give it away, use it for connecting, teaching, learning, nourishing, protecting, healing, laughing, appreciating, resting, rejuvenating and just hanging out.

Love might seem, at times, to be a bad idea when we give and get hurt, but if we just keep loving, keep offering, keep connecting… perhaps we discover the great and simple genius of Love itself—Love deciding what prevails and what goes back to the great drawing-board of earth and sky.

But love is an abundant wellspring, and perhaps we can spend this inexhaustible bounty upon each other and all our collective children.  Perhaps though loving we can find the good feelings that last and give us meaning, purpose and peace.  Is this a bad idea?  Let’s put it to the test.

Namaste, BD


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10 Responses to “In Praise of Bad Ideas”

  1. Meagan Says:

    Thought-provoking as always. This is likely why the village is better for raising children than a parent who tries to do it alone. It is not only the offering of love that people can extend, but also the acceptance of the love that is offered. it is not easy for people to open up to that collective consciousness. To become aware of it…a part of it. My eyes are opened daily to the power that can be found in a loving community, and investing myself there has made me a better parent and my children better parented. That may be one way to disseminate the love that needs to be spread. More and more in-person connection is needed too. MMF

  2. Pamela Says:

    I loved this article and was also going to blog about it – the same sentence jumped out at me too. I loved how they said success was just a probability after enough failures.

    I am so glad you wrote this instead of me because I learned so much and I loved how you related it to parenting. Beautiful!

  3. Mark Brady Says:

    Bruce, you’ve inspired me to make more mistakes more often in my own writing.

    Meanwhile, it looks like Steve Jobs could use some love to help him get healthy. Here he is in person presenting a new building request to the Cupertino City Council yesterday …

  4. Eva Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    A wonderful insight into the happening world. We see and experience so much difference to what we have been used to and are concerned about the rapidly changing world and how to keep up but you have brought this idea of change to a more easily understood plane. Thanks for this insight.

    cheers, Eva

  5. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Hooray! Permission to make more blunders! Seriously, though, I loved this. Ferdinand or Conquistador? Brilliant.

  6. rebecca @ altared spaces Says:

    Malcom Gladwell is one of my favorites. Have you seen his TED talk?

    “One key point to keep in mind, especially if you are a creative sort—although I encourage us to see parenting (and relating) as essentially “creative” endeavors: give yourself space to have plenty of misfires and terrible ideas.”

    love this.

  7. Katrina Kenison Says:

    “An ethic of playfulness and freedom to fail.” Thank you for letting me know what I need more than anything right now. Somehow, I can remind my sons that process is more important than outcome, but I have so much trouble remembering it myself. And as always, it comes down to one question: am I acting out of fear or out of love? Love allows for the playfulness; fear never permits it. Great post. (I wish you would deconstruct the entire New Yorker for me every week!)

  8. Laurie Says:

    “The freedom to fail” missing terribly in our public schools. Reminds me to fail more often as well. Thank you Bruce.

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I do think the distinction between “freedom” to fail and permission to fail is important (but I’ve railed on that score before).

    Love that the root of genius is angel, and loved this:

    What “invention” will allow us to discover that we are deeply connected with the tree, the spider, the bird and with all our collective children? Machines are metaphors… mirrors of our inner state made tangible.

  10. Being Rudri Says:

    Bruce: Excellent article. I realize I am coming late to this conversation, but I wanted to let you know that I found these words soothing. So much freedom opens up when you know you can fail. It’s liberating for me as an individual and as a parent. Thank You.

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