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How to Have Big Ideas

Consider the following questions:

What is the basis of morality?

How can we motivate ourselves to do what we really need to do?

Is there a better way to organize a city or a country?

Is understanding a problem always the best way to solve it, or is it sometimes better to forget about the causes and get on with the solutions more directly?

Big ideas start with big questions. If you want to have more important ideas, then, whether for a book, an essay, a discussion, or just for your own intellectual entertainment, start with powerful questions. Ask how things could be different, and assume that you will have some sort of answers. Ask questions that seem silly even, as long as they are "big" questions like, "What if there were no wars?" or "What if cities were built without streets?" "What if" questions are some of the best, by the way.

Challenging Premises

There are many specific idea-creation and problem-solving techniques that can yield new and insightful ideas. One of the simplest and most profound is to challenge the premises of existing ideas. Let's look at an example.

Licensing of doctors by governments is an almost universally accepted idea. Such licensing only requires a minimum standard that is primarily measured in terms of education and training, not performance, but this still leads the public to be complacent, to the point where people spend twice as much time researching which stereo to buy than they do researching which doctors to go to. The premise patients have is that doctors are licensed and so are roughly equally safe.

Of course, for some types of heart operations a given doctor might have one-in-a-thousand patients die on the operating table, while another has four fatalities. The fact that you are four times as likely to die with the second doctor isn't published anywhere. His having a "license" is supposedly all that you need to know. Or is it? How about a system of ratings that tracks the educational, training and real achievements and statistics of doctors and makes the information public?

Now, with this information, wouldn't it also make sense to pay according to results? People would initially be offended by this idea (especially doctors with lower performance scores). The first reaction of many is that they just don't want the four-deaths-in-a-thousand doctor at any price. But the truth is that there will always be better and worse doctors in any system, and there is no way for the best doctor to treat everyone, is there? Doesn't it make sense to pay less for lower quality?

Challenge those premises! Consider what big ideas might come from challenging the idea of employment. Is there a way to make all people self employed, even if they have just one customer? What would the advantages be? What about the premise that lying is bad? Is there a rule to be found for when lying is a morally good thing to do? What about the idea of "punishing" criminals. Could we find a way to be safer by challenging this premise?

Creative Combining

One of the most entertaining and effective ways to generate new ideas is to combine concepts. A "car" plus a "kitchen" becomes a "mobile restaurant," for example. To generate big ideas, then, you just start with "bigger" concepts. Here are a few examples.

Combine the "free bonus" from marketing and "virtue" from morality. People buy more when the perceived value is higher due to the addition of bonuses. Although "paid" for with effort instead of money, could we "sell" virtue to people by increasing the perceived value in a similar way? People are trained to respond to "free," so this might be an almost directly translatable idea. Instead of a boring book on morality, you have a catalog of virtues. After making the case for honesty, for example, you then add, "Free bonus - buy this virtue today and get a better reputation, which translates into more success in business." Of course the bigger, more general idea here is that maybe virtue needs to be "marketed" better.

What else could we combine? A few final suggestions to get you thinking...

Politics + Business

Childhood + Spiritual Growth

Survival of the Fittest + Ideologies

Problem Solving Techniques + Art

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Big Ideas