September 12, 2008

"good ideas have lonely childhoods"


The first chapter of my upcoming book is called "Ignore Everybody".

1. Ignore everybody.

The more original your idea is, the less good advice other people will be able to give you. When I first started with the biz card format, people thought I was nuts. Why wasn't I trying to do something more easy for markets to digest i.e. cutey-pie greeting cards or whatever?
You don't know if your idea is any good the moment it's created. Neither does anyone else. The most you can hope for is a strong gut feeling that it is. And trusting your feelings is not as easy as the optimists say it is. There's a reason why feelings scare us.

I wrote that chapter over four years ago. As I'm currently working through my final edit before publication, I've been thinking about some of the stuff I've learned the hard way, since first writing this post. Here are some random notes:

1. "Good ideas have lonely childhoods". When I say, "Ignore Everybody", I don't mean, "Ignore all people, at all times, forever". No, other people's feedback plays a very important role. Of course it does. It's more like, the better the idea, the more "out there" it initially will seem to other people, even people you like and respect. So there'll be a time in the beginning when you have to press on, alone, without one tenth the support you probably need. This is normal. This is to be expected. Ten years later, drawing my "cartoons on the back of business cards" seems a no-brainer, in terms of what it has brought me, both emotionally and to my career. But I can also clearly remember when I first started drawing them, the default reaction was "people scratching their heads". Sure, a few people thought they were kinda interesting and whatnot, but even with my closest friends, they seemed a complete, non-commercial exercise in futility for the New York world I was currently living in. Happily, time proved otherwise.

2. "GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS, THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED." The older I get, the truer this sentence seems to be. Especially in industries that are more relationship-driven, than idea-driven.

3. "Fight The Power". The good news is, creating an idea or brand that fights the powers that be can be a lot of fun, and very rewarding. The bad news is, they're called The-Powers-That-Be for a reason i.e. they're the ones calling the shots, they have the Power. Which is why the problem of selling a new idea to the general public can sometimes be a piece of cake, compared to selling a new idea internally to your team. This is to be expected: having your boss or biggest client not liking your idea and firing you, hits one at a much more immediate and primal level, than some abstract housewife in rural Kansas hypothetically not liking your idea, after randomly seeing it advertised somewhere. Which is why most team members in any industry are far more concerned with the power relationships inside their immediate professional circle, than what may actually be interesting and useful for the customer.

4. Idea-Driven vs Socially-Driven businesses; which one are you in? The answer is, of course, both. "What you know" determines what kind of access you're given to people. "Who you know" informs what kind of access to ideas you're given, and when. Though all businesses tend to skew differently in either direction. My experience in the wine trade is a good example of an industry that's primarily socially-driven, at the expense of being idea-driven. I've heard a lot of wine trade folk over the years yakking endlessly on about "Innovation!" Why? Not because they necessarily had any actual new ideas worth talking about, let alone acting on, but because "Innovation" seemed to be a word that their big customers [the supermarkets] liked hearing. So they used the word whenever possible, gratuitously or otherwise. In other words, they were acting in a socially-driven manner. Primarily, they just wanted to be liked.

5. "I want to be part of something! Oh, wait, no I don't!" I've seen this before so many times, both first-hand and with other people. Your idea seems to be working, seems to be getting all sorts of traction, and all of a sudden you got all these swarms of people trying to join the team, wanting to get a piece of the action. And then as as soon as they get a foothold inside the inner circle, you soon realize they don't really understand your idea in the first place, they just want to be on the winning team. And the weirdest bit is, they don't seem to mind sabotaging the original idea that got them interested in the first place, in order to maintain their newfound social status. It's probably the most bizarre bit of human behavior I've ever witnessed first-hand in business, and it's AMAZINGLY common. [AFTERTHOUGHT: "People are not primarily governed by their own self-interest. People are primarily governed by their own self-delusion."]

6. Human beings are messy creatures. I suppose the main thesis to this post is; the hard bit of having a "good idea" is not the invention of it, nor the selling of it to the end-user, but managing the myriad of politics and egos of the people who are supposedly on the same team as yourself. Managing the vast oceans of human chaos that all enterprises ultimately are, underneath the thin veneer of human order.

Posted by hugh macleod at September 12, 2008 12:07 PM | TrackBack

Great stuff, Hugh.

Me? I like being a she-wolf in sheep's clothing.

Posted by: Francine McKenna at September 12, 2008 1:57 PM

1. Yeah
2. Uhuh.
3. Yes.
4. Hmm. Yeah, both.
5. Sh*t, that's true.
6. See #5.

Thanks Hugh, nice bit of insight, and well stated.

Looking forward to speaking with you at Blog08 in Amsterdam.

Regards, David

Posted by: David Petherick at September 12, 2008 2:01 PM

I've found #5 to be a Natural Law when working in the video game industry.

Posted by: Anonymous Game Designer at September 12, 2008 2:08 PM

Love it, especially with the week I've been having. Really needed this. Retweeting now ...

Posted by: BradMays at September 12, 2008 2:10 PM

Ah, the joys of being the "turd in the punchbowl". It's funny how many folks will jump in once it's cool to do so.

Of course, sometimes one is simply a "turd"... but that's a different business card.

Posted by: Paul Ritchie at September 12, 2008 2:48 PM

"I've found #5 to be a Natural Law when working in the video game industry."

I never comment but after I read this I had to. This is so true it giving me a headache.

Posted by: Anonymous Game Designer #2 at September 12, 2008 3:14 PM

There's not really all that much difference between a business and a church. Especially relating to #5 and #6.

Posted by: Hannah at September 12, 2008 4:12 PM

Man, thanks so much for this. This affirms a lot of what I've been feeling/thinking about an idea of mine. I am much more motivated after reading this. Cheers.

Posted by: at September 12, 2008 4:42 PM

I am so looking forward to your book Hugh :)

Posted by: Alvin at September 12, 2008 6:50 PM

All of this has been our experience. At the beginning, I wouldn't have believed it. The idea is too good. Every thinking person should agree, right? I love that your blog puts my thoughts and experience down in well-crafted words. But I've given up buying books that reinforce and restate my experience. I need help. I need answers. Will your book have those?

Posted by: Jeane Goforth at September 13, 2008 4:35 AM

I'm definitely not a people person. I have some great ideas.. but.. *shrugs*

Very well thought out and it all made a lot of sense. You've turned your idea into something we're all enjoying.

Posted by: nikkirae at September 13, 2008 11:54 AM

What's you're advice then on #5, how do you separate those who are genuine from those who aren't.

Posted by: Dustin at September 13, 2008 12:14 PM

Dustin, my advice is to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher: "A good Prime Minister must also be a good butcher" ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at September 13, 2008 1:41 PM

'Good ideas have lonely childhoods' - brilliant articulation of why it is difficult to continue with an idea that you know is worth pursuing. This is how I feel about education and the use of Web 2.0 to create learning communities. I see it as a way forward, but I'm in the lonely childhood stage. I'll have to bide my time sitting in the playground alone for awhile; friends will come, I'm sure of it.

Posted by: Jenny Luca at September 13, 2008 3:53 PM

Could it be that the #5-ers are part of the (atom)idea, like an electron to the nucleus? magnetism, attractive and repulsive forces.

(I think I am going to need a blackboard and chalk for the rest of my theory...)

Posted by: RKR at September 13, 2008 3:57 PM

This is a good post. Insightful and #1 is just plain inspirational.

Posted by: Foreman at September 13, 2008 4:46 PM

Thanks for the post .. very helpful & inspirational!

Posted by: Ryan Spahn at September 13, 2008 9:02 PM

#6 is probably the most true. Almost everything is #4.

Posted by: DennisSC at September 13, 2008 9:31 PM

"The Price of Boredom" is my streetcard. When I saw it for the first time three years ago it struck a very deep and resonant chord within me. I've used it ever since.

Posted by: Dave at September 14, 2008 11:08 AM

Amazing to the point read. Spot on for me.
Yep wolfy with lipstick haha.
ps: Still have your 'only talented people fret about mediocrity' drawing hanging up the wall.

Posted by: Miriam at September 14, 2008 2:32 PM

commenting on #5 as well.
"I want to be part of something! Oh, wait, no I don't!"

it's not just video games or tech. it's every industry. my friend joseph (business consultant of 30 years) describes it as lobsters wanting to crawl out of the boiling pot. one or two get close to being out, and everyone latches on to them, bringing the whole group down and all the lobsters die.

i echo the guy who asked what is the solution for this. to keep the light ahead of you, but at the same time protect it from being snuffed out by everyone else. i guess there's where some of the loneliness is. otherwise you listen to everyone else and dive right back in to the mediocrity.

Posted by: carlos moreno at September 14, 2008 6:18 PM


Posted by: malachy walsh at September 14, 2008 7:48 PM

The most basic principle of human relations is that everyone operates from their own self-interest. If you don't recognize that you get eaten alive. That is why rules and boundaries exist, to provide some basis for civilized human behavior. If it is your idea, then you have to establish the boundaries for joining in the effort to develop it. This is one part of leadership that I find most don't handle very well. The point is not to keep people in their place, but to draw them into behaviors where their best is given to the endeavor. This requires the leader being more than simply self-serving him or herself.
Great post. I'm copying it and carry it with me on a trip today to remind me of what I'll face.

Posted by: Ed Brenegar at September 15, 2008 4:11 AM

wow. And I thought I was all alone in thinking this stuff. You NAILED it all perfectly. I won't have to write the book after all. Especially number 5. LOTS of people wanting to jump on the bandwagon....TONS. My financial advisor warned me - "Just wait until there's LOTS of money involved. Money's even worse than buzz." Thanks! I'm closing the door now. All the losers who couldn't figure it out before sure won't get it I worked in the computer game industry too....and it IS true there...but it's really true everywhere!

Posted by: Becky Blanton at September 15, 2008 11:11 AM

This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks Hugh. :-)

Posted by: Doug Belshaw at September 15, 2008 12:55 PM

Number Five ! Yes.

How about the cheap, low down bastards steal your idea, work and talent, don`t pay you for it and capitalise on it for the near future whilst lying through their fucking teeth about their contribution because they just don`t have the talent to achieve that level of work themselves ?


Posted by: Jake Edwards at September 15, 2008 10:55 PM

Harold Jarche sent me this cartoon of yours some time ago. At the time I wondered if I could choose to be a wolf cub, bouncing gleefully along in the wake of the braver, bolder souls and learning from them as much as I can.

I don't set out to be rebellious, but I find myself unable to follow the sheeple on some points. However, I don't consider myself enough of an original thinker, or an innovator to be a wolf.

Hmm. Is a puzzlement.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis at September 16, 2008 1:49 AM

Canadian Health&Care Mall started as a multistore based in Toronto and Ottawa in early 90s. Health&Care chain store system has been growing from year to year and finally has resulted in the current online project, as a result of operating not just as a family pharmacy but also as a store of so-called "useful things" . We tried to obtain the benefit from our previous experience and to create a really competing online resource for absolutely any customer. Though the idea is standard you may be absolutely sure that the filling is unique and has no analogues all over the Internet. We would like to admit that our online store is operating independently from the offline store system.

Posted by: Health&Care Mall at September 16, 2008 2:05 PM

It's nice to see you add perspective and depth to your older drawings. Like good wines, some ideas improve with time.

Posted by: Alex de Carvalho at September 16, 2008 3:28 PM

Good stuff, Hugh. I really like #6 on this list. One of the most important lessons I've learned in my life. Such a huge confidence booster as a young man to realize that there are no ivory towers, that the world's a collection of balancing acts built and maintained largely on guts, moxie & willpower, with healthy doses of bluff and spec thrown in.

Posted by: jon oropeza at September 17, 2008 12:54 PM

god, could that book come sooner, please?

will you be reading an audiobook version? that would be killer.

i need to be reading when there is light and listening when it's dark for constant consumption, reaffirmation and review.

Posted by: michael at September 17, 2008 2:34 PM

This is a really interesting, and in my view, spot-on, article.

In particular, in my opinion:

"ignore Everybody"

"Good ideas have lonely childhoods"

"But I can also clearly remember when I first started drawing them, the default reaction was "people scratching their heads".

- Can imagine.


"The older I get, the truer this sentence seems to be. Especially in industries that are more relationship-driven, than idea-driven"

- kind of related to this point: Ogilvy said: 'There are very few men of genius in advertising agencies. But we need all we can find. Almost without exception they are disagreeable. Don’t destroy them. They lay golden eggs.'

Posted by: Eamon at September 18, 2008 2:59 AM

What a great cartoon... what an existential paradox! Oh the woes of wolfdom... oh the woes of sheepdom... thanks Hugh!

Posted by: Jeff at September 18, 2008 10:03 AM

Number 1. Yeah, I'm currently on the "people scratching their heads" phase with these:

Regarding duuds... Around ten years ago, I was planning to grab the domain, and start publishing my doodles on the web. Was it kids, or work, or something, I ditched the idea then. Now, thanks to your inspiration, I've time and inclination to do it.

It's always interesting to see what happens on the web; do creations resonate with other people perhaps?

Posted by: Tomi Itkonen at September 19, 2008 2:26 PM

Hugh, I have been browsing and enjoying your words and cartoons.

Also your HTBC words (having been in the "creativity and innovation business for decades).

Thought you might be interested in my take at life (at the URL above), also words with cartoons. As I can't draw, Phil Frank did them for me.

Thanks for the thought provokers.


Posted by: John Philipp at September 21, 2008 3:47 PM

This brilliant post slipped through the net (amongst many, many posts) on my 250 list. Still in the process of tweaking (need to plough through lots more posts, and more). But just to let you know added this post to the list under 'Creative'.

Posted by: Eamon at September 22, 2008 1:05 AM

Turns out many of us committed #5 in parts of our lives. I did one just recently. I guess it was just another pillar for my own ambitions.

Posted by: Long at September 22, 2008 1:05 PM

Not to sound ageist, but 'digital nomad' belongs in a back issue of Wired magazine circa 1994. It ranks right up there 'disruptive change' and 'multimedia gulch' - which Yahoo! Maps finally removed from a certain physical section of San Francisco.

Now I want to go and find an old Apple PowerBook Duo on eBay so I can be a hacker-tourist.

Posted by: Bradley Allen at September 22, 2008 5:07 PM

Hey Brad, yeah, like the Internet itself, it may seem like old news to folks like you and me, but that being said, it's still very much in its infancy. And there's the opportunity...

"Early Adoptors" are just one small piece of the puzzle....

Posted by: hugh macleod at September 23, 2008 2:32 PM

Who better to exemplify the "ignore everybody/lonely childhood" idea than my favorite artist ever Vincent van Gogh, whose genuis was unappreciated, until, that is, it was so massively--more than $80 million worth, actually--appreciated after his death.

Considered a loser in his lifetime by many, a genius thereafter, his work exemplifies not just "lonely childhoods" but "lonely adulthoods" as well. In other words, just because others don't get it, even if they NEVER get it, does not mean it is not brilliant or worth doing.

Posted by: m'sblog at September 23, 2008 4:28 PM

The work of Matisse was, at first, regarded with bated breath, revulsion, even horror. He was said to have taken art to its most dreadful extreme. They called it "violent," and it was subject to tremendous ridicule.

Where have you ever seen a statue erected to honor the memory of a "critic"?

Posted by: Ginny Fry at September 25, 2008 5:41 PM

All so true. It has been my entire life. Recently prime example. I started my new gallery. My so called gentleman friend purchased another business across the street "for me to have a better location", he took it over and made it a tourist shop featuring my art instead of my gallery.
User. I find most uncreative people are users of we creative people. I have moved on starting another art related business. raspberries to him!
Love the article. we artist should move to another planet. All art and great conversation!

Posted by: Linda Mikulich at September 25, 2008 8:31 PM