What’s an idea worth?

on May 8, 2012

Here’s a situation I’ve experienced quite a few times:

  1. I come up with some cool idea or approach to solve a problem
  2. I tell someone about it
  3. That person tells me that I ought to patent it and/or make money off of it

It kills me when this happens.

First, this perspective directs the motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic. I came up with the idea because I thought it would be cool if it existed. The mere fruition of the idea would make me very happy. It’s not about the money or the credit. It’s about solving some issue to make my or other people’s lives better.

Second, we put too much importance on “protecting” our ideas. Honestly, it’s unlikely that someone will steal your idea. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into turning an idea into reality.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

If someone does happen to do all the work of following through on your idea, then they probably deserve to reap the benefits.

Third, ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They simply arise in the process of creativity, which builds upon ideas that others have come up with.

Fourth, ideas become more useful when they’re allowed to mingle with other ideas, especially from different minds. Something idealistic might turn into something practical. Or perhaps an approach to one problem will solve another problem.

The bottom line:

  • Ideas are cheap
  • Execution is expensive
  • Ideas multiply in effectiveness when they’re shared
  • All of the above are required to get something valuable

As for my situation, it’s clear that I need to be even more open with my ideas. So that’s exactly what I’m doing. Check out my new project at http://ideas.sonicans.net where I’ll be sharing all sorts of ideas. Some will be ones I have or intend to follow through on. But this won’t be the case for most of them. So if you see something you like or find interesting, feel free to take the idea. To share and discuss it. To remix it. To bring it to life. I hope the world will be better off for it.

Our education system – is it about learning?

on Apr 22, 2012

Sit in ordered rows. Do what your told. Don’t question the authority. Stick to this plan and schedule. If you’re “good”, you’ll be rewarded. No, you don’t get a say… Sounds like a bad gig, but it reflects two related systems where we spend much of our waking lives: school and work. This is the “factory” model (interpreted in a loose sense). School teaches us to follow directions, be compliant, and be like everyone else. It’s perfect training for a corporate world where it’s the same raw deal.

Is it surprising that students don’t care to “learn” (is this really even learning?) when our education system reflects this dehumanizing factory model? Is it shocking that students are glued to the extrinsic motivation of getting good grades with that promise that it’ll lead to a “good job”? That’s what they’re taught after all. There’s pressure on all sides, from society at large to guidance figures, that this is supposedly the only way. Those that seek to be different or creative are often lashed out upon – I know this all too well.

When I was in school, my vision in education was about actually learning something (and everything). My motivation was intrinsic. I found the whole notion of grades and exams to be a hindrance. Most classmates seemed incapable of understanding this – they were institutionalized: set on the track to be unquestioning direction-followers. The few that understood my perspective considered me to be naive – that that this wasn’t the way the world worked and that I’d end up screwing myself over with such idealism. I was constantly challenged about my approach. Why are you taking this class? It’s not a requirement and it won’t help your career. Why aren’t you memorizing this and that? How about doing something that will look good on your transcript or resume? How can you ask the teacher that question? But I managed to do alright. I survived the system because my intrinsic desire to learn automatically bore good grades. And I sought out those good teachers that appreciated my perspective.

A side note: I feel especially bad for teachers. There’s a lot of good ones out there that really want their students to learn and care. But they have to fight the factory system on two fronts – directly from higher-ups telling them to do things in potentially demoralizing ways and indirectly from apathetic students that have had the curiosity drilled out of them.

There is some very good news though. The world is in the midst of a change – the factory model is on the decline. It’s easier than ever before to learn something on ones own time. Access to knowledge online, video lectures and way beyond, are demolishing the gatekeepers to learning. it’s so obvious now. Conversely, it’s now possible to connect with others in your field that seek to do meaningful work. It’s an exciting time, for those that understand this change. The generation that’s just leaving school now is both very lucky and unlucky – it’s the first to have the opportunity to break out of the factory model, but also the last to be engulfed by it as is crumbles beneath them. I’m fortunate enough to be in the former group, but I had to fight all sorts conventional “advice” to get there. Unfortunately, many of my peers still cling on to the factory model as they stick to formal schooling or soulless work.

There’s a really good new book – more a manifesto built of a hundred and something short blog posts – regarding education and how it will be transformed for the better: Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. It’s free to read and share. If you agree or are intrigued by the points I made in this post, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy this book. And if you don’t like what I’ve said here, you should still check out this book – at least the first dozen posts.

For a long time, knowledge was locked down and we had to be part of this terrible system. But now the world of amazing knowledge is becoming unleashed. It’s only a matter of time before our education system is totally transformed to reflect this. And with it, students will recapture the joy the learning.

A few examples of education being transformed:
Khan Academy
Skill Share

How I Came to Embrace Reading and Became a Smarter Person

on Nov 13, 2011

Note: I refer mostly to the reading of non-fiction books in this post

“I love to read!” These are some words that every school teacher and parent would be enthralled to hear from their kids. And our teachers and parents work so hard to get us to read, telling us that it is essential to our success. Yet, through multiple metrics, like the repeated statistics that kids aren’t meeting reading standards or that adults do very little reading in general, there’s a clear disconnect between the the desire and the reality. I’m not sure what the perfect solution is to get people more interested in reading, but as someone who has gone from non-reader to a voracious reader, I share some experiences that provide light on the matter.

For most of my life, I didn’t like reading because iit was something I did only in school or had forced upon me by authority figures. It felt like something that was work and it was neither fun nor something that I chose to do. In most cases, I found the literary works uninteresting. But for school, I was required to read it and then participate in class discussions (and by discussions, I mean the desperate teacher prodding us students to guess the bazillion hidden intents made by the author). I found the whole exercise pointless and didn’t see how it connected to real life matters. I’m sure many of my classmates shared this sentiment. And we marched on through our school lives, reading only when we had to, associating it as some necessary and boring activity that required a lot of effort yet yielded little legitimate value.

It wasn’t until my third year of college – near the end of my formal education – that I saw a tiny light indicating otherwise. At the time, I was looking into ways to improve my eating habits and my exploration fueled my desire to learn about the machinery behind our food system. I picked up The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Despite the elegance of Pollan’s words, it took me about four months to finish the book. This wasn’t a surprise considering that this was probably the first non-fiction book I had ever read on my own accord. I wasn’t used to reading such a long work so it took an exorbitant amount of time and effort to get through it. However, the experience was very eye-opening – it revealed that reading such a work is enjoyable and a great way to learn.

Flash forward to now – four years later. I’ve probably polished off about seventy-five non-fiction books since. And my rate of reading has increased exponentially. That is, I read a handful of books when still in school, and even more after finishing school. And then it exploded – I feasted on books, reading one after another, or as more often the case, two or three in parallel. Despite that I began working full-time in 2011, I began to read even more, stuffing sessions into my commute and weekends. I’d become addicted.

So what happened? How did this transformation occur? The first and most significant factor was that reading allowed me to learn about the things I found interesting. And it became self-perpetuating – as I read more about things that interested me, I became interested in other things that the books discussed, and I ended up reading books on those topics. It was also self-fulfilling: because reading allowed me to delve into subjects I was passionate about (or became passionate about – the order is sometimes a blur), I became passionate about reading itself.

The second factor is that it became easier to read as I read more. The ability to read is much akin to training like an athlete or artist – it requires a lot of consistent practice and concentration – especially in the beginning when we’re prone to fumble around. The ease and grace comes after a lot of initial work. I sense that most people that don’t like to read, if not all, never get over this hurdle. They never get to a level where it’s easy to get into a reading groove and breeze through long or complex works with ease.

The third factor is that our school teachers and parents are correct – reading goes a long way to make us more intelligent, wise, and conscientious individuals – essential qualities to do well in our complex world. This is especially the case for non-fiction works. In my own experiences, I’ve found that I better understand the world and how it operates on a deep level because of all the explorations, research, and insights I’ve become exposed to from all the various perspectives of the authors. Likewise, this has bolstered my creative ability by providing more parts for my creative toolbox. Reading allows my experience in education to continue despite that I’m out of school. My formal studies involved the natural sciences and computer science, and I also had some informal study of the social sciences. But through reading, I’ve learned a great deal about psychology, economics, world problems, self improvement, social etiquette, business, history, media, and marketing. Here’s a handful of books that illustrate the breadth of knowledge out there:

Children of Jihad by Jared Cohen –  an American student reveals the story of the Middle East youth through a blend of his firsthand experiences from exploring the Middle East and the history that has brought its cultures to the present state

The Lucifer Effect by Phillip Zimbardo – the creator of the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment dives into details of his study and the analogous Abu Gharib tortures to show how human morality can be altered almost completely given the right environment

Food Politics by Marion Nestle – this nutrition, food studies, and public health professor exposes the relationship between the food industry and our political system and how it produces the our food system – one that is geared for the industry at the expense of our health

Linchpin by Seth Godin – this marketing genius shows how the way we do work has shifted away from an industrial model to one that allows us to become indispensable individuals that do meaningful work

Each of these works explores something that affects us profoundly – it’s difficult to argue that any of them don’t explore areas that are relevant to our daily lives. This is why I so strongly believe that reading books is so important for us as individuals and as a society. Likewise, this is why I find reading to be so interesting. I love to read. Why not say it too?

Science, the Critical Process for Ideas

on Jan 21, 2010

Under the definition that technology is a tool that helps us advance our lives, science represents a very ancient yet still essential technology. Science is the tool of analyzing and making sense of the world. Its primary weapon is doubt. By constantly subjecting any concept [explaining some part of the world] to skepticism, we test its plausibility. What is left (but still subject to doubt) is an understanding that we can rely on more so.

The creative process is also this scientific process. The way we form ideas follows this. Every idea is subject to critique and it is the good ones that stand this test. It is imperative to have lots of ideas, including seemingly bad ones, because you never know which ones will actually be good ones. It likely takes ninety-nine bad ideas to make a good idea, but the creative (scientific) process will allow good ones to prevail.

Another place that the critical scientific process is present is in our genes. The process of natural selection (evolution) uses the ability to replicate genetic information as the critical yardstick. And while the changes that appear in genetic information are at first random, the critical process determines which changes are better. Consistent with the creative process, there are a large number of bad changes for every positive one. But it is those few positive changes that matter so dearly, as with those few good ideas, and these positive changes or ideas can only exist through having all the bad ones.

So don’t be afraid to explore thoughts that are outrageous. You never know which crazy ideas will turn out to be fantastic ones. And don’t be afraid to mess up or be wrong, because the only way to put out some good things is to put out lots of bad things.

Where else in life do you see the critical process at work?