7 Rules for Making Your Idea a Reality
Your ideas aren’t doing any good if they’re stuck inside your head
First, let’s address this harsh truth: Your idea is probably not as good as you think it is.
This is not an insult to your intelligence. It is an observation of the creative’s mindset. We adore our ideas. We care for them. We dwell on them. We obsess over them. We know this one idea will change our life forever.
However, the longer you build the idea perfectly in your head, the more ignorant you become to your naivete. That’s because an idea in the real world looks infinitely less sexy than it does in your perfect brain. You can understand the fear: Why risk failure when you can sit in imaginary perfection?
A friend once told me of the novel he wanted to write. I asked why he hadn’t started yet.
“I don’t want to corrupt the purity of this story by rushing it out.”
Sounds reasonable, right? Except he told me that eight years ago. He still has not written chapter one.
I hate when internet people say “just start!” We both know it isn’t that simple.
Over the last two years, I’ve published over 800 posts across Medium, TIME magazine, CNBC, Inc., and other platforms. Some of them are terrible. Some of them are great. The common thread is that all of them started as ideas at one point. Each time, those wild ideas had to be wrestled into reality.
Here are some strategies that continue to help me do just that:
1. Ruin every new idea immediately
The human ego seems to believe that whatever comes out of our mind should be instantly perfect. This is complete fantasy.
Artists in particular have this problem — sorting through vague ideas. There is no blueprint, no map. There is a half-finished cup of coffee and a whim.
I love what Ira Glass says:
“Your taste is why your work disappoints you.”
The sooner you reach that “disappointment” with an idea, the better. Understand that it takes thousands of hours before you will be even a little satisfied with your work. Even then, there are iterations — you will spend untold hours doing and redoing and idea, wanting it to be “just right.”
P.S. It will never be “just right.”
2. Let it die
People sometimes say:
“I love what you wrote about creativity in that one post!”
I often say:
“Thanks… What did I say?”
Idea people like me have a strange paradox. When an idea is new, it’s all we think about. After the idea reaches reality, it is dead to us.
Pour your heart and soul and blood and guts into your idea. Then, let it die and move on. Better to find your best work through being prolific than to dwell on what “could have been.”
(See also “Die Every Day.”)
3. Believe in the vision
Your ideas are worth implementing.
I’m telling you that just in case nobody else does.
I’m telling you that because current culture often makes us feel insignificant.
I’m telling you that so you can write it down, stick it on your mirror, and read it when you don’t feel like moving forward.
I’m telling you that because it’s true.
4. Use the 30 x 30 x 30 Rule
When I have a big brand new idea, the first thing I do is work on it for 30 seconds. I do this as soon as possible after I have an idea I think is really good. (see rule #1). If I hesitate, the naive idealist takes over and the idea becomes too precious.
If I am still interested in an idea after 30 seconds, I put it through the 30 day test. If you can do something for 30 days in a row, it’s potentially a good fit for you. Many people build their own cages with ideas they don’t have enough interest in to carry out.
[Important: It’s fine to realize an idea isn’t right for you, so long as you release any guilt or shame related to quitting.]
When we’ve passed the 30 day test, I immediately ask: Is this something I could do for 30 years?
The last part of the 30 x 30 x 30 rule is scary. I am usually bored after six months. How am I supposed to do something for 30 years?
But if you plan on a 30-year window, imagine how small the little bumps along the way are. Imagine how patient you would be with your new idea. Imagine if you committed to 30 years, but achieved your desired results in just five.
That happens more often than you’d think.
(See also “Dear Young People Looking for a Career — Do This.”)
5. Find good friends
J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of Lord of the Rings, was obviously a phenomenal talent and had an astonishing imagination. But it’s likely none of his work would have ever been seen were it not for a close friend: C.S. Lewis. Tolkien and Lewis went back and forth reading each other’s work, analyzing and critiquing the dialog, studying the nuance of their craft.
T.S. Eliot never felt like he fit in at college. So he moved to London, where he met Ezra Pound, a fellow American poet. Pound took one look at Eliot’s work and deemed Eliot “one to watch.”
Then, Pound made sure everyone around had to watch Eliot. Pound pushed Eliot toward publishing his poetry, organized social events in his honor, and introduced him to an entire army of literary influencers.
All of these men are dead, but their work lives on.
6. Use the magic word
The magic word is “no.”
I hate no. I am very bad at saying it. Hopefully you are stronger than I am.
Instead, I say this:
“I love you, but I can’t give you my focus right now.”
It is not uncommon for people who have big ideas to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. John Sylvan, creator of the Keurig, spent most his time alone in a room testing cup after cup of coffee. (He also got caffeine poisoning during this time. Obsession can be costly.)
Remember rule #3. If you believe your idea is worth executing, you will have the discipline to prioritize it.
7. Break your idea down into concrete, tiny pieces
Every November, around half a million people queue up for what can only be described as an artistic trial by fire. NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, is a program in which you write a complete novel in 30 days.
Here’s why the movement is so powerful: The goal of “I want to write a novel” is arbitrary. Novels come in all shapes and sizes — how long should yours be? What genre should it be? How much time do you have to spend working on it?
NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially largely because of a clear goal and clear subgoals. The goal is 50,000 words — a concrete, measurable finish line. The subgoals are 1,667 words per day. If you hit this mark every day, you’re ahead. If you miss it, you’re behind.
Great ideas usually don’t find their place in the world through a herculean effort over two days. Instead, they happen when the first step is so easy, it would be stupid not to move forward.