I first discovered this obviously wrong truth when I was doing my honors thesis. Time and again, I would come up with a novel idea or a neat algorithmic trick. Some of them, I would discover had already been invented 3, 5, sometimes 10 years before I came up with it. But the ones I was absolutely sure nobody had published before because I had scoured the literature and covered every approach. Well, all of those original ideas turned out to have some hidden, unforeseen flaw that rendered them either trivial or actively stupid. This lead me to formulate the belief that “anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both“. Like all obviously wrong truths, it has the paradoxical property of being obviously wrong and also true.

The premise for the statement comes from the simple observation that good ideas survive and bad ideas die. This means there exists an entire class of awful ideas that people come up with time and again only to eventually discover their wrongness and then abandon them. Every person who discovers them believes themselves to be wholly original since nothing of the sort exists in the world and each of them is met with disappointment, sometimes after many years of sweat and toil. But because failures are almost invisible, they leave no warning signs to future generations that this is an awful idea that should be avoided*.

Anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both” is an acknowledgment of your own stupidity. Your first instinct, when you come up with a new idea, should be to try and find out if anyone else has done it before. Your second instinct should be to try and find out if anyone’s done it before. Your third, forth and fifth instincts are to ask how come everyone else figured out this was a dumb idea and I haven’t? If you’ve gotten this far and you still haven’t discovered anything useful, you should start feeling a little bit uneasy, it probably means you weren’t smart enough to discover how wrong you are.

If you have discovered the prior art or the fatal flaw, then breathe a small sigh of relief. Unoriginal ideas are GOOD, wrong ideas are GOOD. An unoriginal but right idea is still valuable to all the other people who’ve never heard of it and chances are, if you’ve never heard of it, there will be a significant fraction of the population to which bringing this idea contributes value. Wrong ideas do more to teach you more about the world than right ideas because they teach you about some discrepancy between your expectations and the world, The corrective force of wrong ideas is what allows you to deftly cut to the core of any issue and tease out just where assumptions are weak and likely to fail.

But if you’re lucky, over the course of your life, you’re going to stumble across many ideas which are both original and right, in which case it’s still better to treat them as unoriginal and wrong. Believing an idea is unoriginal and wrong makes that idea do more work. You attack it more fiercely and from more angles. You keep on asking people if the idea sounds familiar and you’re eager to seek feedback because you’re so damn curious to discover why it could be so wrong yet elude you for so long. In doing so, you disassociate the idea from your ego so that you can take criticism about it calmly and dispassionately. Eventually, that drive of curiosity will force you to action, just to finally prove how this idea is flawed. Treating an idea as unoriginal and wrong means that the only standard you’re willing to accept is success. This brings a clarity or purpose that cuts through the confusion when executing upon that idea. Other people may be willing to make excuses or caveats that salve their ego but, as far as you’re concerned, if an idea is not successful, it’s not right**.

Anything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both” is an idea that also applies to itself. I’ve been slowly chewing over this idea for almost four years now and it’s been frustrating to me that so far, I haven’t been able to find someone else that’s expressed it as a similar sentiment which by de facto, makes it wrong. I’m putting this out there to invite the embarrassment of someone pointing out the obvious source or the obvious flaw that I’ve managed to miss for so long. Please, tell me how I’m stupid, it would be a welcome relief.

*Some people, when first discovering this problem, come up with elaborate schemes of recording all of these common awful ideas so that future generations can avoid them. This, unfortunately, is a common awful idea.

** not right and wrong are different concepts in the same way that not being a millionaire is different from being homeless.

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  • Alan Watts

    Ideas are neither right nor wrong in an absolute sense. What is right in one circumstance is wrong in another. What was true yesterday is false today.

    Conditioned co-production … states that all things arise in dependence on conditions, and cease when those conditions cease. Things have neither absolute existence nor absolute non-existence – they have relative existence.

    Ultimate reality is inexpressible (though millions of people claim to express it and blog it daily) … but

    I am sure you’ll figure this shit out, because you have taken the first step. You have opened the gateless gate.

  • Alan Watts

    Ideas are neither right nor wrong in an absolute sense. What is right in one circumstance is wrong in another. What was true yesterday is false today.

    Conditioned co-production … states that all things arise in dependence on conditions, and cease when those conditions cease. Things have neither absolute existence nor absolute non-existence – they have relative existence.

    Ultimate reality is inexpressible (though millions of people claim to express it and blog it daily) … but

    I am sure you’ll figure this shit out, because you have taken the first step. You have opened the gateless gate.

  • http://ageofglobalization.blogspot.com/ Derrick Hiebert-Flamm

    I would like to piont out that, while this is largely true and has precedence (Edison or Bell did not invent many of the things tfor which they take credit), the role of the person who “rediscovers” something is to popularize it. If something is valuable and yet unknown, it might as well not have been invented. Therefore, discover something, see if it did any good, find some sort of application for it and make it popular. In so doing, you may think you are not original, but you actually are since you are taking an idea and actually doing something with it.

    By the way, sometimes when you come up with something and take a relatively new angle on it, you have to jump on the idea in order to get any play out of it. For me, I wrote my senior thesis on some ideas about globalization, ethnicity, inequality, and development. Almost immediately after finishing the thesis, I started seeing a million NEW works being discussed and some starting to get published. I was just part of a trend. Frustrating, but at least I know that I am either right or part of a very large group of wrong people.

  • http://ageofglobalization.blogspot.com Derrick Hiebert-Flamm

    I would like to piont out that, while this is largely true and has precedence (Edison or Bell did not invent many of the things tfor which they take credit), the role of the person who “rediscovers” something is to popularize it. If something is valuable and yet unknown, it might as well not have been invented. Therefore, discover something, see if it did any good, find some sort of application for it and make it popular. In so doing, you may think you are not original, but you actually are since you are taking an idea and actually doing something with it.

    By the way, sometimes when you come up with something and take a relatively new angle on it, you have to jump on the idea in order to get any play out of it. For me, I wrote my senior thesis on some ideas about globalization, ethnicity, inequality, and development. Almost immediately after finishing the thesis, I started seeing a million NEW works being discussed and some starting to get published. I was just part of a trend. Frustrating, but at least I know that I am either right or part of a very large group of wrong people.

  • Danger359

    Ideas are not unique. They happen when the preconditions for the idea exist and someone makes the intuitive leap. There are many examples throughout history. How many ideas did Leonardo have? How many were “discovered” later? Remember that most of Leonardo's work (the Codex) is missing. In science, many labs tend to discover the same results or reach the same or similar conclusions simultaneously. It then becomes a race to publication. This is also the case with inventions and the race to patent.

    Great blog. Keep it up!

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  • Mayuri

    You've managed to express a very elaborate idea in a catch phrase :)
    Loved the post.

    PS: Why is recording one's errors “a common awful idea.” ?
    It saves time and resources for anyone else trying the same thing a few years later!
    In fact, this is one of the most common practices in science!

  • Hang

    Can you point me to a repository of failed ideas? An encyclopedia of error? That it doesn't exist is proof that is one of those unoriginal & wrong things that people try & fail to create again & again.

  • Mayuri

    There is no repository because mistakes are not going to be glorified..but they are recorded and difficult to find. Recording mistakes is not an awful idea.

    A famous example would be the two proposed models for structure of the Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
    We all now know that the DNA is a double helix as what was suggested by Watson and Crick in their publication (http://osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/specialcollec…)

    However, there is available information about the triple helix model proposed by Pauling and Corey. http://osulibrary.oregonstate.edu/specialcollec

    It gives a perspective about how data was interpreted at the time and saves anyone new from coming to the same wrong conclusion.

  • Basu

    In science (elsewhere too?) “right” and “wrong” are not absolute qualities. They change with time. What was right once, e.g. Newton's laws, can be replaced by something more right, e.g. Relativistic Dynamics a la Einstein. As a result, the entire body of scientific literature is a mish-mash of right and wrong. Ideas are correct in some limited way. And yes, all those papers can be thought to be an ever increasing encyclopedia of errors.

  • Hang

    I was probably a bit unclear in my post. The phenomena I was talking about was the one where people first realize that there's a bias against wrong ideas and think “well, I'm going to *fix* this once and for all and it will be a great boon to society and bootstrap progress to the next level because never again will people fail to aware of wrong ideas again”.

    This is a supreme irony because they are falling into the exact same trap that they were just made aware of. They're walking over the corpses of a thousand other people who tried the exact same thing after the exact same realization and there's something both deeply funny and deeply sad about this that I couldn't resist mentioning.

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