On ideas, execution, and the power of sharing

Lewis Hyde’s new book is about the nature of ideas, and how they improve with use. It turns out that anyone who produces a totally new idea, something completely out of thin air, is unlikely to be a productive artist and a lot more likely to be seen as a total loon. Every artist builds on what came before. Ben Franklin, Bill Shakespeare, Alexander Graham Bell, Martin Luther King Jr., Shepard Fairey, Ricky Jay, Maya Angelou–all thieves.

-Seth Godin on originality.

It reminds me of that line in The Social Network: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”1

An idea is only the first step to invention.

An idea is just one element of a long process, and execution is equally, if not more, important. A few months ago I bookmarked a great reddit comment on this topic, from lastsynapse: “Ideas are cheap. Implementing them to success is the hard part.” Anyone can come up with an idea, but not anyone can make it a reality. That’s why many startups fail; not because the idea is necessarily bad, but because they give up, or lose momentum, or stop due to countless other rationales unrelated to the reason they originally started, that is, an idea.

If you truly love an idea, then set it free

An idea is only as good as its execution, and sometimes the best way to ensure an idea fulfills its potential is to let it go.

To modify a film cliché, if you truly love an idea, then you have to set it free.2

The concept that ideas are more powerful when shared is the philosophy behind open source software, Creative Commons, and other liberal licenses; and the “free culture” movement as a whole. As Chris Anderson says, “Ideas are the ultimate abundance commodity… Once created, ideas want to spread far and wide, enriching everything they touch” (Free: The Future of a Radical Price, p. 83). Those who are truly creative often have more ideas than time, and giving some away is the only option for them to be realized. Before the Internet, traditional economics taught us to protect what we have, but, especially in the digital world, that’s not necessary, or feasible.3

George Bernard Shaw explains the power of sharing ideas very well:

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.


  1. Another relevant quote, from IMDb: “Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair. They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.” In my view, the main issue with Facebook’s founding is not where the idea came from, but that Mark Zuckerberg continuously misled the “Winklevoss twins” about his work for them before launching thefacebook.com instead. 

  2. And, like all the best ideas, I’m not the first to have it, although I didn’t see this until after drafting my post. 

  3. William Melton explains the incorrect assumption of traditional economics in Chapter 3 of The Future of Money in the Information Age: “In traditional economics we assumed, for simplicity of discussion, that there was a finite amount of goods and services available in the marketplace. I take issue with this mechanistic assumption of finite market limits. Is there a limit to the number of songs that can be produced or enjoyed? Are the number of ideas that can be thought finite? Are the number of computer programs to be written finite? Are ideas about efficiency itself finite? I would argue, no, there is an infinite progression, and therefore potentially an infinite supply of goods and services.” 

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