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What's the difference between good ideas and great ones?

Hey there,

Today’s post is about the difference between good ideas and great ones. Unlike our First Step series, it’s a standalone piece meant to serve as an introduction to the Idea Validation course we’re launching tomorrow. If you’re interested in the course, you can read more about it at the newly redesigned SANE Digital site, or sign up for it here.

As part of the redesign, we’ve also moved the newsletter over to our main site. If you know someone who might be interested in what we write about each week, please send them to its new home.

As of next week, we’re going to move the newsletter to Mondays, starting with a new series titled “Next Steps.” It focuses on how we should spend our time at each step of our business journey, and how we can identify which step we’re currently at.

But that’s next week—today, let’s talk about ideas.


I love stand-up comedy.

I love watching it. I love talking about it. Once, I wrote a five minute set and performed it at an Open Mic night at a comedy club on New York’s Upper West Side. It was awful. And still I loved every second of it.

I also enjoy listening to comedians talk about comedy—on Jerry Seinfeld’s series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”, or Joe Rogan’s podcast—and one of the things that a comedians will inevitably bring up is the “bits” that they’re still working on. This comes up naturally as part of their conversations: one comedian mentions LA traffic and the other immediately starts into, “I’m actually working on a bit about that,” followed by a rough explanation of the envisioned joke.

But the unfinished bit is never funny. You can see the humor in the situation they’re describing, and it might be something you’d mention to a friend and both chuckle about, but its not a real joke yet. If you stood on stage and repeated the work-in-progress to an audience you’d be met with a comedian’s nightmare—a sea of blank stares and silence.

And yet, when a skilled comedian performs the finished bit on stage, the final joke absolutely kills. The audience loses their minds over the same idea, expressed a different way. The core concept is the same—LA traffic sucks—but the comedian has figured out how to present it in such a way that people pay him to do exactly that. What’s the difference?

The difference is craft.

To the outside observer, skill is often a mystical combination of supernatural inspiration and natural talent. But in reality, it’s almost always a product of craft and perseverance. Skilled creators—artists, performers, and entrepreneurs alike—aren’t dramatically more talented than amateurs, except in one way: they have the talent of being willing to work on something that sucks until they’ve made it good.

A lot of people focus on “ideas”—whether that’s for jokes, books, or businesses—as though wunderkinds are just better at coming up with them than us normal folks. But every person who has lived in NYC has had the same exact ideas that Jerry Seinfeld turned into a billion dollar TV show. The difference is that Jerry got up on a stage every night, was willing to suck at first, and slowly crafted those ideas into comedy gold.

Malcolm Gladwell has sold over 5 million copies of his first three books, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. The core ideas in them are:

  1. Straws Break Camels’ Backs.
  2. Trusting Your Gut Works.
  3. Some People are Special.

These are so simple. None of them is particularly mind-blowing. What made those books so successful was not the ideas they presented, but how they presented them. The value of these books comes not from the simple ideas they’re based on, but how Gladwell explores and presents those ideas. He’s mastered the craft of non-fiction writing.

Business is no different. Most successful startups aren’t “great ideas,” they’re just ideas that got worked on until they became great. Airbnb was originally “AirBed & Breakfast,” a site that allowed people to rent out literal airbeds in their homes and required that hosts offer breakfast in the morning. Now it’s a $35B company.

Was AirBed & Breakfast a “great” idea? Honestly, no. It’s kind of ridiculous. But it was the idea that got its founders to begin exploring the business that would become Airbnb, even if that business is very different today.

The truth is, most ideas—whether we’re talking about startups, books, or comedy bits—aren’t that special. What makes them special is the consistent application of craft. And craft is something we have control over; it’s something we can improve.

You improve your craft—in business or in art—through a combination of theory and practice. No matter how much you read on a topic, you’ll never get better unless you sit down to do the work. And it’s equally unlikely you’ll write a symphony to rival Beethoven’s 9th just by sitting at the piano and pushing down the keys. The two must go together: method and theory guide your practice and help you improve.

We’ve just released an email course on Idea Validation that combines the two: it teaches you the method we use to help our clients evaluate their ideas and figure out how to get started, and it takes you through the practice of applying that method to an idea of yours.

If you’re interested in improving your business craft, you can read more about it here.

Whether you want to be a comedian, an author, or a founder, go and practice your craft. Get on stage and be unfunny. Write that “shitty first draft”. Rent out airbeds in your living room.

The only way to get better is to try.

Until next week,

James

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