Edison, Light Bulbs, and Idea Collision

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Who invented the light bulb?

I would say Thomas Edison. You probably would to.

In history books, Edison often gets the attribution when the dust settles, but a bit of digging reveals that he was far from the sole inventor. Edison’s main contribution was the use of a bamboo filament that lasted longer and cost less than competitors.

History includes thousands of these types of inventors – solopreneurs that took an idea from start to market without help from anyone else. When you take a closer look, you find that, like Edison, that’s only part of the story.

In his YouTube sketch for Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson takes a shot at answering the difficult question “How does groundbreaking innovation happen?” He singles out one component that stands in direct opposition to our typical vision of the solopreneur – the “slow hunch.”

Johnson explains that ideas don’t come to life fully formed. We don’t shout “Eureka!” while standing in the shower and burst out sopping wet to jot down the next million dollar business. The ideas start as hunches, small nuggets that could lie dormant in the back of our minds for years or even decades before they start to develop.

The key to that development process, Johnson argues, is collision. Great ideas come from various hunches smashing together, not sitting in isolation.

Good ideas normally come from the collision between smaller hunches so that they form something bigger than themselves.

More importantly, this smashing together of ideas isn’t a solo act:

Often times, the thing that turns a hunch into a real breakthrough is another hunch that’s lurking in someone else’s mind.

Innovation rarely happens in huge leaps and bounds. It’s more often a slow building process where one person borrows from the work of another, improves it a bit, and leaves a mise en place of sorts for someone else. This closely mimics a theory that Cal Newport discusses in So Good They Can’t Ignore You called the “adjacent possible:”

We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.

If ideas work in a recombinant fashion and we have the perfect tool at our disposal for sharing them (the internet), why aren’t we sharing more ideas? I have a three hunches.

It’s scary as hell. Sharing a half-baked idea is intimidating. You’re opening up the channels for critiques.

We discount our own ideas. A result of the “Nah, that could never work” mindset.

We’re afraid someone is going to steal it. “I want it all to myself so when I make it big, I’m on the cover of __.”

In October of 2014, I was grabbing coffee with a buddy of mine and kicking around ideas for a beer-focused cancer charity. My idea was to dye a beer pink for the month and raise awareness.

I suffered from both of the above. I was scared that everyone else would think the idea was stupid. I definitely thought “No way in hell this will work.” I didn’t know anything about getting this idea off the ground.

What really happened:

Others chimed in. Thankfully, they had much better ideas than me.

Everyone offered to help. The strange think about sharing your ideas in the open is you attract others that share the same values and beliefs.

Friends, family, and stragers were supportive. All of the critiques I expected? They never came.

Sharing a single, naked idea turned into something much bigger than I could’ve imagined.

Let’s invite more collision into our lives and share ideas without paying attention to our worst fears. Those fears rarely live up to the hype.


To put my money where my mouth is, here’s an idea I had for a site called OneIdea.Today:

Gist: A stream of ideas with Twitter attribution, tags, and a brief description. A main goal would be to have a “collision” page where similar ideas are combined. (This may already exist, and I’m not aware of it.)

Crude, crude drawing.
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