The Power of Starting Something Stupid

"Stupid ideas come from a very powerful, creative space within our hearts and minds."

- The Power of Starting Something Stupid, page 80

In the early days of the 20th century it wasn’t unusual to hear of scam artists selling anything and everything through newspaper ads to trusting folks who were willing to pay a stranger for something they hadn’t seen; the proverbial “pig in a poke” – it was wiggling and squealing, and the guy holding the bag said it was a pig, so it must be a pig, right?

Until someone let the cat out of the bag.

Fast forward to the age of the internet. Can you imagine any sensible person repeating that business model, though in all sincerity, and thinking it had any chance of success? Selling merchandise sight unseen to strangers, over the internet. Who would pay for something they hadn’t seen? Who would be foolish enough to give money to a stranger for something they could walk down the street and buy for just a few dollars more? Who would wait for delivery just to save a few bucks?

Jeff Bezos sure was stupid when he started Amazon.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

"Sensible" is Not the Best Metric for Your Ideas

"The natural tendency is to recoil from these ideas, because everything inherent to that kind of creativity requires breaking away from the norm, going against the grain, and leaning into risk and fear."
- The Power of Starting Something Stupid, page 80

Wet the clay sculpture. Smear black seeds all over it. Watch them grow into a green fur all over the sculpture. What a stupid idea.

Half a million Chia Pets are sold each year.

Fling birds at pigs. If that’s not the stupidest idea for a game ever I don’t know stupid.

In 2011 Rovio confirmed a profit of $106 million.

Western Union didn’t want to buy Bell’s invention, the telephone, because it had no value.

Financial experts called Henry Ford’s invention a fad.

Fired from the newspaper where he worked because he lacked imagination, Walt Disney turned to other things.

Elvis Presley was asked to leave the Grand Ole Opry after a single performance because he was “goin’ nowhere.”

The so-called experts said nobody would want to listen to digital music files they said couldn’t be sold and watch homemade television shows or have video chats with people on the other side of the world, all considered impossibly stupid ideas even after they were proven feasible.

It’s a well-kept secret in modern business that the purpose of analysis is to find a way to say “no” to things. In their seminal In Search of Excellence Tom Peters and Bob Waterson pointed out that businesses which left slack for experiments, dumb ideas that might not pan out, were the ones who struck gold with strokes of genius.

As Richard Branson says, protect the downside. But your stupid ideas might be the best ideas you’ve ever had.

It’s easy to assume that the brilliant ideas which have shaped the world we live in were recognized by both the creators and their peers, hailed as genius from day one.

I don’t know of a single case where that’s true.

Before things are considered normal, they’re new. And before they’re new, they’re just stupid.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Stupid Loop

"[I]f your stupid project becomes successful, it will likely become accepted, then considered smart, and then standardized, and eventually, normal."
- The Power of Starting Something Stupid, page 87

Remember Howard Aiken’s comment? “Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.”

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore used Rogers’ Distribution Curve to teach us that between early adopters and the general masses lay a chasm it was difficult, sometimes impossible to cross. Even early adopters need education to accept something radically new.

Norton points out the risks of our stupid ideas becoming normal: if we get comfortable with normal, stop innovating, starting stupid stuff, we make ourselves irrelevant.

I’m focusing on the pattern itself, what he calls the Stupid Loop: from stupid to smart to normal.

Because every brilliant idea in the world has gone through the same loop.

When you can’t let go of an idea, when you lose sleep over it, when you simply cannot not do it, that stupid idea has every chance of becoming tomorrow’s normal.

Your willingness to pay the price in blood, sweat, and tears will prove to yourself and to others that maybe it’s not so stupid after all.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Service is the Greatest Evidence of Resolve

"[S]erving others is powerful evidence to the ones we serve of our resolve."
- The Power of Starting Something Stupid, page 206

A large section of the book explains the acronym START: Serve, Thank, Ask, Receive, Trust. Like Stephen M. R. Covey’s The Speed of Trust, each is worthy of an entire book.

I’ve long said that generosity is your greatest marketing tool. Norton’s explanation is that when we serve unselfishly we win in multiple ways:

  • Make strategic connections

  • Overcome the Time/Education/Money gap

  • Establish credibility and earn trust

  • Gain experience

  • Low-risk learning

Giving without an agenda connects you with others in a visceral manner not possible through staid business efforts. It’s the basis of Zig Ziglar’s claim that you can have everything you want if you help enough other people have what they want.

The Power of Starting Something Stupid is a deep and complex book. Its seed was planted by tragedy: the death of Norton’s 21-year-old brother, and two years later, his own 2-month-old son. As a result, it has an emotional punch, an immediacy greater than most self-help or business books.

This summary barely scratches the surface. I encourage you to read the entire book and make use of it to give life to your own stupid idea.

And right down there in the comments, tell us: what’s your stupid idea?

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Joel D Canfield

ABOUT Joel D Canfield

I'm a creative who works mostly with words, sometimes accompanied by music. I write because I have to, and I have very little patience with money and its attendant issues...
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