No Stupid Ideas

I had a wonderful opportunity to be shadowed by Anthony who was in a leadership development program from another agency.  He and I talked a lot about innovation and the whole notion of how to get good ideas.  At the end of the conversation he said he got the feeling that I didn’t think any idea was stupid.   After I thought about it I agreed.  I told him that I think there really are no stupid ideas, just stupid people. 

Before I continue too far, I have to say that I hate using the word stupid – it’s judgmental and arrogant.   I try to limit myself to only one “stupid” per day.  And I find as I get older and learn more, I know less.  So, the whole notion of “stupid” is pretty … well… stupid sometimes.  Nevertheless, this word seemed appropriate in the context of the world of innovation and creative thinking.

Sometimes ideas that sound stupid turn out to be examples of the kind of out of the box thinking that produces amazing results.  I read a pretty interesting article on several ideas that seemed stupid, but ended up making millions of dollars.  Examples of this are: doggie goggles, antenna balls, and personalized letters to Santa.   

Sometimes ideas that initially seem to be stupid failures end up being learning opportunities that ultimately yield to amazing results.  Thomas Edison had many failed ideas before he was able to learn through trial and error what was needed to invent the light bulb, the phonograph, and the motion picture camera.  As George Santayana is often quoted, “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Stupid people are not those who lack education or intellect.  Very intelligent people can be stupid.  Similarly, people with low intellect or education can come up with ideas that produce great results.  But most stupid people have some characteristics in common as it relates to ideas.

They don’t seek diversity.  Often stupid people will ask other stupid people if their idea is a good idea.  In other words, they seek advice from people who are just like themselves or in their own inner circle.  They also only look for opinions that confirm what they want to hear. 

They don’t care about results.  Whether it’s from being delusional, experiencing cognitive dissonance, or being overly righteous or arrogant, stupid people just want to defend their original ideas without listening to advise that could produce desired results. 

They don’t learn from mistakes.  Personal righteousness and arrogance can prevent stupid people from learning and allow them to stumble into this ditch.  In addition, very successful people can be stupid because they have so much experience in creating good results from their former good ideas.  They don’t get into the disciplined habit of learning from mistakes because they simply have not made a lot of mistakes.  They are haunted by the enemy of past successes. 

If an idea fails, that doesn’t make it a bad idea.  Likewise, if an idea is good idea, it can get botched through thoughtless implementation.  So, after giving this more thought Anthony, I still think there is no such thing as a stupid idea.

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

7 thoughts on “No Stupid Ideas”

  1. re No Stupid Ideas Dept.

    Dear Linda Cureton,
    Having read your article regarding no stupid ideas, and, taking the portion of your article in which you pointed out that one seek a diversity of opinion, I respectfully suggest the following (and perhaps not-stupid) idea, in hopes that it may in part be useful:
    I wonder if it is possible to construct an entire propulsion system using only acoustic technology. One would maintain superchill for liquid fuel using thermoacoustics… Since principle of acoustic ignition is also based on shockwave passing through a gas, could the same system be used to both cool propellant & later ignite it? If you linked these two systems with something like the Bellocq Compression Wave Pump, could you cool the propellant, keep it under pressure, pump it to the ignition chamber, and ignite it all using one unified (acoustic) system rather than multiple systems? I’m picturing a much-simplified engine, somehow, with only one magical major component…
    I suppose it might be possible to scavenge electrical energy back from the heat of the reaction, depending on whether a pyroelectric additive like lithium tantalate crystal was used in the fuel. One counterintuitive idea which appeals to me: if the fuel already has a lithium pyroelectrical component (say–it’s suspended in Triethylborane gel or something) I’m wondering if the filled fuel tank itself could do “double duty” and also be utilized as an electrical energy storage matrix. My understanding is that typically one strives to avoid static discharge in the neighborhood of fueled rockets, so I’m wondering if this particular line of thought has ever been pursued. I realize, in passing, that while the individual elements of this suggestion for a flight system may be unsound, is it possible that combined together they might perhaps make more sense? At any rate, I hope you don’t mind my passing this uninformed, left-of-left-field inquiry along to your offices.
    Best regards,
    Christopher Buchanan Shay
    Celebration, FL

  2. I think your quota of 1 “stupid” a day has been taken for at least the next 17 days!

    Great – no, excellent – post! Love it!

    Misti Burmeister, author of the Washington Post best-selling, “from Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies Across Generations.”

  3. Excellent post!

    In fact, a child-like curiosity, at the risk of seeming stupid, often sparks innovation.

  4. Usually I refrain from commenting on blogs – but I liked this one because it points out one stupid idea: that there is no such thing as a stupid idea.

    Its easy to prove, but I will provide a little more explanation because I think it is important to dispel. To have an intelligent conversation, first you have to set the context. We have to agree about the definition of stupid. I am going with 1b & 3 from Merriam Webster:

    1a : slow of mind : obtuse b : given to unintelligent decisions or acts : acting in an unintelligent or careless manner c : lacking intelligence or reason : brutish

    : marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting : senseless

    I understand what you are trying to say – that people have a predisposition to senselessly dismiss good ideas because they don’t reason them through, or carelessly dismiss them. So if you accept the “no stupid idea” mantra, then you will not act stupidly (3).

    Before the “no stupid idea” concept was a cliche, it was a reasonable ice-breaker to help people open up, and it works to reduce some group think.

    But stupid people have latched onto it, and now use it to excuse wasting time sifting through uninformed ideas because every unreasoned thought might prove to be a goldmine.

    So, I say, break free of the cliche, refrain from harsh criticism, and learn to sort the stupid ideas out from the inspired ones, make a balanced, reasoned judgment and spend your thought wisely.

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