How many times have you said to yourself, “Someone should build an application that does [x]…”, or “Wouldn’t it be easy to add automation to [y]”, or “It would be a lot of fun to work on a project to build [z]”? For me, this has happened a lot, and seems to occur more frequently the longer I’m in this business.
In the early days of my career, these ideas were all great – for someone else. Someone with more skills and experience than me. Someone with more connections. Someone more confident, good-looking, eloquent. But definitely not me. I subconsciously put onto pedestals those other someones who actually could do the things I thought up. Sure, I had the occasional wild thoughts like “What if I were to build the next eBay?”, but thoughts of realism and self-doubt always reigned me in. I would move on, sooner or later forgetting that I’d even come up with the idea.
However, a few years into my career, I turned a corner. I started to mingle with those who were creating solutions, and I began to realize that they weren’t demigods. I learned that folks who were building successful widgets weren’t vastly smarter or more talented than me. They were just ordinary people who had an idea, explored its potential, and then worked like crazy to make it happen. It was this realization that led me to believe that I, too, could dream up and build successful widgets. From there, my Idea Book was born.
Yes, it really was a book
Version 1 of my idea book really was a physical book. More specifically, a spiral notebook. I carried it with me and would jot down ideas big and small. Most of the ideas I wrote down in my idea book were dumb. Many were wildly ambitious and unattainable by anyone at any skill level. Others were so narrowly focused that their implementation would benefit no one. Still others were solutions looking for problems that didn’t exist. The vast majority eventually found their way to the cutting room floor, and only a fraction of them had enough merit to really pursue. In spite of all of these deficiencies, my idea book has been a resounding success. I’ve carried several of the ideas to implementation. Some of them have made their way into the code tool bag that I use on a nearly-daily basis. A couple of the ideas from my idea book have made me a lot of money.
Having an idea book doesn’t make it a success, obviously. For the first year or two, my book was where ideas went to die (or more accurately, to fall into a coma). I was also timid at first about adding ideas I wasn’t sure would be practical or doable. My idea book didn’t bloom until I committed to two concepts: no idea is too big/small/ridiculous to be added to the idea book, and I must actively push the ideas through the funnel.
All ideas are welcome
Over time, my idea book has transformed from a physical notebook to a virtual one (I use Evernote). I’ve also worked up a semi-structured idea funnel, which I used to categorize ideas into buckets including brainstorming, researching, and in-progress. I’ve also resolved to allow any idea, however grandiose/trivial/odd, into my idea book. My idea book is mine and mine alone, and it doesn’t get shared with anyone – not even my wife or my business partners will ever see the unedited version. Any and all ideas are welcome, though not all will survive the vetting process.
My idea book is with me all the time, in one form or another. If I’m riding in an elevator and a new idea strikes me, I type out a quick note into my phone app to capture the moment. If I’m in the middle of a presentation and someone asks a question I want to pursue later, I scratch out a note on my spiral pad (yes, the old-fashioned method still works sometimes). On occasion, an idea will strike me in the middle of the night, and I’ll grab my Surface from the nightstand and jot down my idea. The medium(s) used to log the ideas isn’t critical, so long as I’m faithful about getting them into Evernote as soon as practical.
The real value shows through when I’ve got 20 minutes to spare, and I’m looking for something to fill the time. Sitting in the lobby of the Kwik Lube, waiting for my oil change. Waiting to see the doctor. On hold with tech support. Using my idea book (the new virtual version), I can review ideas I’ve previously logged, and sketch out pros and cons, flesh out why they will or won’t work, and weigh the benefits against the investment. Having my idea book easily accessible makes it easy to do this in bite-sized chunks rather than having to schedule several hours to go through these ideas.
So where is your book?
Should everyone have an idea book? Absolutely. Whether you’re a technical professional or not, newbie or seasoned veteran, a maker or a strategist, a coder or an executive, having an idea book can stoke the creative fire in you. Thinking through new ideas, analyzing them, and implementing the good ones helps keep you thinking about alternative approaches and different ways of doing things, and can keep you out of a career rut. And who knows, your idea book might end up producing the next eBay, Facebook, or Rubik’s Cube.