People don’t have ideas –– ideas have people

Afterthoughts: Principles by Ray Dalio

Do anything you want … but do it publicly

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There is an epidemic that has persisted since the dawn of civilization –– the often crippling anxiety that comes sharing ideas in any sort of public forum. Whether the setting is as intimate as a small work meeting or as grand as a Q+A opportunity at a stadium-sized speaker event, butterflies are as inevitable as the sun rising from the east. Nerves are a natural physiological response and can certainly be useful, but when they have a disabling effect on our behaviour, that is when it becomes pernicious. Imagine a world where no one is fearful of putting their ideas, and by extension themselves, out there. To say it would be “different” would be the understatement of the century.

The root of the problem is the narrative that people have ideas: the implication is that the person is then often judged on the merits (or lack thereof) of it. The action of then sharing ideas becomes a question of the individuals risk tolerance. There are four outcomes that could come to pass:

  • The idea is judged favourably and so is the individual
  • The idea is judged unfavourably and so is the individual
  • The idea is judged favourably but the individual unfavourably
  • The idea is judged unfavourably but the individual favourably

Outcomes one and two are the most likely while three and four only occurs in the rarest of circumstances, rare enough to not have to worry about them, so lets discard them from our investigation.

The question of risk tolerances comes to a head when we consider whether the individual feels more pain when their idea is judged unfavourably than the satisfaction they have when their idea is judged favourably. Most people in most cases behave in a risk-averse manner. The pain of a unfavourable judgement outweighs the satisfaction from a favourable judgement. Thinking probabilistically, in the long-run, an individual is more likely to opt out sharing their ideas than to volunteer them. With anything, there will be mitigating circumstances which might shift the individual’s risk profile such that that the joy of a favourable judgement outweights the misery of a unfavourable judgement. One example might be in the setting is among people where trust has been intensely cultivated. These circumstances, however, are relatively rare.

In summary, if we believe people have ideas, this phenomenon will in all likelihood continue to play out. But what if that is flipped, what if ideas instead flow through people? To shatter the narrative would require the individuals to decouple the sense of ownership of an idea with the idea. In the same way that we feel sad when someone we know passes away, we are more likely to have certain ideas about the meaning of life flow through us when we finish school. Ideas would then behave like emotions, under specific circumstances, some ideas are more likely to flow through us than others.

In this proposed paradigm, the elimination of the notion that we own ideas we think of eliminates the inclination for others to make judgements. If we accept that ideas are something we have little control over, there is not rational reason to be anxious or shy about sharing them no matter the context or setting. Instead of thinking ourselves as having ownership over an idea, we instead are stewards. The former proves quite problematic as we are almost incentivised to keep the idea to ourselves unless our sharing of it can benefit us in some fashion. As stewards, however, there is a sense of responsibility that if the idea is a good one, it is our duty to share it as far and as widely as we can.

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