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My idea sucks; why I trust my shit filter

March 29, 2011

Ideas are awesome. When you have them, they are like little babies. Feed them, and they grow into bigger ideas.

I personally love most of the ideas I’ve ever come up with. I remember some of my favorites.

But I also remember some of the ideas that were filtered out. They were filtered out because when the idea sat, it didn’t grow. It stayed the same, and as time passed, and the idea was looked at from different angles, the shine looked dull.

That’s the critical element of time.

Here’s a story I heard way back when in my first job. A person was clerking for a Justice. The justice asked the man to write a brief. The guy went away and wrote it, and handed it in. Two days later, the Justice handed him the brief with a note on it that simply said: “Needs work”.

So the guy rewrote it. A few days later, he submitted it again. Two days later, he got it back with a note on it that said: “Still needs work”.

Confused, the guy re-wrote it again. This time, he wanted to hand-deliver it and ask for detailed feedback instead of the vague feedback of the last week. The Justice took the brief, looked at the man, and said: “This is the third time you’ve written this, right?”

The man relied in the affirmative.

“Okay then, I’ll read it”.

I’m not sure if this is a true story, and it always struck me as dickish, but it illustrates the shit filter quite nicely. When given enough time to re-think and re-write something, we will do our best work.

The thing that powers the shit filter is time. Give it time, and it will begin to work. There’s a real risk that advertising will become a commodity – part of the reason is that all too often, clients are only charged for the time it takes to come up with ideas. They aren’t charged with the time it takes to tell if those ideas are bad.

What do you think? Do you love your ideas unconditionally? Or do you kill them after a few days?

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 10:08 pm

    I can’t agree more… and the story about the brief is exactly my writing style and has consequently killed so many of my story ideas. In other words, “Until you have written it 3 times is it worthy of my attention!”

    I re-visit them (my ideas or story outlines) and find that they lack the “thing”… the panache, the pizazz, they lack shine (if I can borrow from you) and for that reason alone I leave them whither and die. There are so many other complicated reasons that ideas of mine sit and what you’ve said here is one the main reasons… the shit filter!

    One day… an idea of mine will make it through the shit filter… and I might actually act on it.

    The tragedy of this whole scenario in my mind is this… the absence of a trusted, like-minded person to help expand on the idea and get it through the shit filter, that coupled with sheer ego and want/need to make it a dependent of your own (like myself, there are many that see their ideas as children) so you can experience credit and accolades for once in your feeble, insignificant existence, hinders the creative and collaborative idea process… hence the trust issue comes into play yet again!

    Anyway, this should actually reside on one of my blogs instead of a reply to yours… see how strong truth and ego can be? Damn!

    Ha!

    • March 30, 2011 8:17 am

      Hey Chuck, thanks for the response, eve if it should have been on your blog. I’ve done that a bunch of times. Gotten really into a response and realized it would make a good blog post.

      Regardless, I’m glad you shared here, and I agree there’s a danger of having a bad idea get through because of time/pressure/lack of team members.

      See the commodification of advertising for examples.

  2. Rod Gotty permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:48 am

    I disagree. The phrase “even a polished pile of shit is still a pile of shit” comes to mind. No matter how many times you rework an idea, a bad idea to begin with will always be a bad idea. Reworking the idea is simply moving to the execution phase, even if the execution is virtually in your head. So, a good idea is spontaneous and reworking it is just movement towards its execution. Just my $0.02.

    -Rod

    • March 30, 2011 8:14 am

      Agreed, my point was reworking a good idea often leads to it turning bad. When we have ideas, we often think highly of them. Time helps take the shine off.

  3. March 30, 2011 7:45 am

    Your post reminds me of the old joke “Ideas are like armpits, everyone has a couple, and most of them stink”.

    Good hunting.

    • March 30, 2011 8:13 am

      Tim, I love that line. I plan on borrowing it and using it in conversations at EMA.

  4. Matt Maguire permalink
    April 1, 2011 4:56 pm

    Dear Smart Matt —

    I heard a variation on this story in which Henry Kissinger asks an earnest young policy expert for a briefing paper on an issue. Dr. K. repeatedly gives it back to the author. In this variation on the story, he doesn’t merely say the draft needs work, he says he wonders if it can’t be briefer. Finally, when it’s a two-page memo and the kid declines to take it back, saying it can’t possible be briefer, HK says thanks. The young wonk: “You mean now you accept it? ” HK: “No, I mean now I’ll read it.”

    In this variation, I submit, the story has more utility, and the lesson has more power. It is an argument that revising improves writing *and* thinking, that revising should mean reducing, and that arguments, like jazz piano solos and left hooks, hit harder when they are short and direct.

    I use this story in my writing workshops.

    Best,

    Clever Matt

    • April 1, 2011 8:56 pm

      Shorter is better, but my story is from Laywers, and they tend to not be short in prose.

      That said, there’s an argument to be made that starting again, from scratch, makes us think about it again, and makes use love our ideas less. In marketing, we have to be brief, true. But we also have to come up with ideas. Often, the ideas we have blow. It’s in redoing it that we learn how much they blow.

      That said, a creative director once said to be that if the idea can’t fit on a billboard (no more than 10 words), then it isn’t an idea. So maybe you’re on to something.

  5. April 26, 2011 8:41 pm

    I am a new guy! I like here!

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