I have written several articles now about my ideas. I end most of these articles with a fairly lengthy explanation of what is wrong with each of those ideas. In being critical of my own ideas, I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t like them, nor that they could not be successful if properly executed. Instead, I am attempting to acknowledge that my ideas have weaknesses, and that I am not blind to them. There comes a point when an idea has so many weaknesses that it passes, for me, from “crazy, good idea” to “crazy bad idea.” I’ve only shared the ideas that I think are at least more on the good side than on the bad side, but I have plenty of ideas that are no good at all. I have long had a method of determining which ideas are good and which are bad, but I have only recently become aware enough of the method to be able to articulate it.

The strength of an idea is directly related to how late I stay up at night thinking about it.

In other words, an idea is good if it is alive. But what does it mean to be alive. One of the greatest blessings of having kids is that you get to think about questions so basic that we take them for granted, but so mysterious that they deserve much more of our attention.

What it Means to Be Alive

A couple weeks ago my daughter asked me if plants were alive. She asks a lot of questions, some of them quite challenging, but I thought this one would be easy. I was wrong.

Me: “Of course they are”

Her: “But they don’t move”

Me: “Even things that don’t move can be alive”

Her: “Are rocks alive?”

Me: “Nope”

Her: “Why not?”

Me: “Well, because … they don’t … I don’t really know”

Since this (embarrassing) conversation, I’ve given the topic a lot of thought. What makes something “alive”? I don’t know that I’ve ever even considered the question before. It is a fact, not something to be questioned. I’m certain that the field of Biology has an excellent answer to the question, but probably not an answer that I would be able to share with my young daughter. After quite a bit of thought, this is what I’ve come up with.

An object is alive if it can grow and repair itself (i.e. heal)

That definition isn’t complex (and it’s almost certainly incorrect or incomplete), but I think it’s quite useful. And I’m pretty sure my daughter can understand it.

An idea that is alive has the power to grow. As I lay awake at night, if an idea is “alive”, an almost continuous stream of new thoughts enter my mind as the idea grows. These thoughts come on their own, without my bidding (sometimes I really want to go to sleep). When the idea’s weaknesses are exposed, or when it is criticized, if it is strong enough it can repair itself. A bad idea, or a dead idea, does not keep my attention and it does not grow. I may try to force new thoughts to come, trying to breathe life into the idea, but they quickly fall over lifeless. No new thoughts come spontaneously.

I’m writing this today because I just realized that one of my ideas is not very good. I’m a little sad, because I had high hopes for this idea, but at least its death has helped me better understand how to judge the quality of my ideas.