Brand New Ideas

None of your ideas is ‘brand new,’ not really.

Think of what it would mean to have a thought that no one has had before, ever.

It is, mathematically speaking, impossible.

Phew. Once we notice this, we can be duped into letting ourselves off the hook. If it’s all been said before (we tell ourselves) then no one needs to hear from us. Time to sit back, relax, and passively consume.

The problem with this story is what it imagines an idea to be: a formless, weightless thing that exists, objectively, somewhere out there.

This isn’t what ideas are at all. They are living things that take on meaning through the way they are expressed: their content, emotion, and form (the words, the medium, the imagery) all breathe unique life into them.

When we consume your idea, we take in all its indivisible parts: the idea is shaped by each irrefutably personal element you put on it. Only you could express this idea in this way, because there’s only one you.

This means that your job is not to tell us something we’ve never heard before. Your job is to tell us what this thing means to you, right now, in a way that is textured, imperfect and personal.

This allows us to understand what it means to us, right now, and why we might let it into our minds and our hearts, so that it can change us.

What we already know

I spent a few hours this weekend with my 10-year-old son taking apart an old HP Photosmart A636 photo printer. It’s surprisingly difficult to do. All the screws have beveled heads so you can’t take them apart with a regular screwdriver, and the whole thing acts like a ball of sealed plastic you’re not supposed to break in to.

After a good deal of grunting, bending, hurting our hands and using the screwdriver as a lever, we got as much of the casing off as we were going to get off, and we were left with the motherboard and not much else. We were proud, and tired, with red ink stains on our hand. Beaming, my son asked me to explain how the motherboard worked. We talked for a bit, but outside of the absolute basics I didn’t feel like I had much to say, so I went online to search for a diagram or video that would explain how a printer motherboard worked better than I could. No luck. After a bit, we got pulled away to our next Sunday afternoon activity.

The next morning I woke up and he ran towards me, motherboard in hand, but now it was covered with a bunch of mini Post-It Notes diagramming the parts.

“Dad! I’m going to bring this into school to show it to everyone and explain how it works!”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing. How did you learn all of that?”

“You taught me, when we were talking yesterday.”

I looked more closely and read the labels. They were things like “microprocessor,” “USB port” and “motor.” They didn’t actually explain how a motherboard controls a printer, but there was enough for him to teach his friends something about what this green metallic thing was made up of.

It’s so easy to diminish what we already know, to see it as not enough to answer the question we are being asked. Let’s not forget that what we already know is a lot, that in the act of sharing what we know we enlighten others, and that in so doing we start a conversations that will teach them, teach us. And that the most important part is our enthusiasm for what we know, our desire to learn more, and our willingness to share what we know with others.


Bonus: “how a motherboard controls a printer” diagrams would be welcomed in the comments.