We live in a culture that worships ideas, but I’m frequently left stewing in my ideas and getting nothing done. If knowledge is power — and if ideas are supremely important — why do we have so many educated people with brilliant ideas who achieve little or nothing? For me, that’s been a painful question at times.
I grew up with a supreme confidence in ideas — and a supreme confidence in my own ideas. Actual execution was an afterthought for me. When you’re young and nobody expects that much out of you, just a halfway decent execution of your ideas is almost always enough to impress people — and doing that made me happy.
As I got older, though, a funny thing happened. In the adult world, execution matters more than ideas. In so many of the things I did as a child and as a teen-ager, the good idea was enough to carry the day. Teachers and other adults were impressed. “He’s going to do great things one day,” they’d say.
Looking back, I see that the times when I accomplished anything with my ideas, it was always when I had a partner who was working closely with me. The pattern was always the same. The ideas and inspiration were mine. The practical incentive to turn the ideas into reality — to actually finish what I started — was in the more practical partner working with me. At the time, I didn’t know why I needed that. I understand now.
I started thinking about this again today because I ran across a link to a short old blog post about ideas and execution. In it, the founder and president of CD Baby makes the obvious point — which I was blind to for years — that an idea is worthless without execution. Good ideas are what he calls multipliers. The better an idea is, the more it can multiply the value of excellent execution. But the idea alone is worthless.
At this point in my life, I look at ideas sort of like the graphic at the top. The idea is the red gear. If you pull that out, the machine won’t operate. But you can replace that gear with something else. The machine can still operate with some idea put in there. However, that red gear on its own is worthless. It just sits there. The shiny red might attract attention. People might think it’s beautiful. But it will never do anything all its own.
I know someone who constantly bemoans the fact that she has no ideas. She’s not entirely right about having no ideas, because some of hers are quite good, but ideas and vision aren’t really her strength. Execution is her strength — getting things done, making sure things are finished — the very things I’m terrible at. So while she feels that she’s missing something not to be the “idea person,” I understand that I’m the one who’s truly poor. I’m the one who has frequently lived in my ideas without executing them, simply because I haven’t turned to the successful pattern from my teen years — that of working with a partner who is strong where I’m weak.
If you’re like me and think you have great ideas, climb down off your high horse. Quit thinking about how you’re going to pose for the statues after you impress everyone. Our ideas might be great — and, yes, I really think some of mine are — but without execution, we’re losers and paupers. I wish someone had explained this to me when I was a teen-ager — instead of letting me get away with half-hearted efforts on good ideas.
So if you specialize in brilliant execution, I’m in the market for a great partner. Together, maybe we can do great things — as long as we actually deliver on ideas, not just talk about them.