Most ideas, on their own, don’t mean much unless you have work, effort, and the ability to back them up.
Most people are more interested in developing their own ideas, if they have the energy and ability, than worrying about stealing yours. You should care more about your ideas than they do - and you should care about them enough to act on them.
Worrying about people stealing your ideas may prevent you from developing your ideas and seeking feedback on those ideas - causing your own worries to defeat you.
If you have ideas, don’t be afraid to share them - but don’t be afraid to develop them either.
I think it’s common, when you work in a creative industry, to worry that other people are always waiting around to steal your best ideas. After all, you work with ideas - good ideas are praised, respected, and potentially bring you fame, fortune, and lasting influence. Bad ideas doom you to obscurity. It only makes sense that you would want to horde your “best” ideas on the off chance that someone else might take them, use them, and get to it before you can.
When I was younger, I was terribly afraid of sharing my ideas - in part because I worried that my ideas might seem stupid, and in part because I was afraid that if they weren’t stupid, sharing them would leave me vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
There are certainly situations where this could be true. If you suddenly came up with a genius new invention, or solved a very difficult math problem, then you would probably want to zealously guard your work. In these sectors, it may take a great deal of time to solve a problem, but the solution is relatively simple on it’s own - once someone knows it, it’s no longer private knowledge, and you don’t have a competitive advantage. If someone were to get ahold of the single key that could solve a complicated problem, then they could very easily pass it off as their own and take credit for it.
But the problem happens when you start to zealously guard other kinds of creative secrets that, honestly, no one probably gives two shits about.
And that’s the honest truth: that almost no one cares about your ideas except you. I know that it’s hard to hear, but that’s how it is 99% of the time.
Here’s the corollary to that truth - that most ideas don’t mean anything without a lot of work to back them up. It takes dedicated time, work, and effort to take an idea from conception to execution, and no one is interested in doing that work except, maybe, you. If you had a genius idea that took only a few hours to take credit for, you’d be smart to do that work very quickly. But if you have a genius idea that would take tens, hundreds, or thousands of hours to follow up on - well, no one is going to be interested in doing that work, because it’s work. The value of this “genius idea” to a bystander is inverse to how much effort would be required to put into it in order to get that return.
Let’s say that you have a secret - you know that there’s a $100 bill hiding in someone’s unlocked desk drawer. This is a simple, easily exploitable secret. Now let’s say that you know the location of a diamond deposit buried underground that might be worth millions, but you’d need to spend spend ten years and millions of dollars of your own to get the necessary equipment and infrastructure to effectively mine those diamonds - is anyone going to bother trying to exploit this secret?
Let’s say that I have an idea for a genius book series. Absolutely the best thing in the world, would be the next big Game of Thrones. Or let’s say that I have an idea for a wonderful video game, a real groundbreaking masterpiece that would defy existing genre conventions and make billions of dollars because of how unique and innovative it is. Now let’s say that I made it my quest to go around blabbing these ideas to every single person who would listen to me.
Realistically, how many of those people would act on those ideas? None.
There are quite a few reasons for this.
The first is that no one is as interested in your ideas as you. Psychologically, human beings are always most interested in the things that are most directly relevant to themselves: their jobs, their families, the causes that they care about, their ability to put food on the table and plan for the future. They may care about things that are less directly related to them, but only in a secondary sense.
Sure, there are plenty of people who really care about video games, or literature, or some other hobby, but these are secondary to their main concerns, most of the time. These are the things that you do in your free time. So what are the chances that you’re going to tell them about an idea you have, and they’ll suddenly decide to lay down a significant amount of time out of their life to focus on stealing an idea that isn’t their own?
Because human beings are primarily a bit selfish in that way, they’re also more interested in their own ideas than in stealing somebody else’s - sure, it makes sense if it’s an easy job and there’s a significant chance they can get away with it, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense that someone else would decide to just entirely swallow and own an idea that’s particularly yours. They’re more likely, if they care about these kinds of things, to have their own ideas about what the next amazing future game or book should be.
But if they have their own ideas, why haven’t they made them into books, games, movies, and so on?
Because if they had that ability, they would probably have already done so, or at least tried to.
This leads us to the next answer - that developing an idea is always hard work. It will take hours, days, months, years of concerted effort just to turn an idea into a book. You may need to start, stop, and revise multiple times. Many authors barely even get through this stage - it’s not like we have the concept of famous authors who run around telling people about “the cool ideas that they have for books”. No one cares until the book is written - and even then, there are numerous stories of now-famous pieces of media that initially failed to resonate with publishers and gathered numerous rejections before eventually finding success. So, even after the hard work is put into the project, there’s no guarantee that it will suddenly succeed, even if the idea is world-class. Gamasutra is littered with posts about how “no one cares about your ideas”, because in the world of games, this can be a hard thing for indie developers to understand.
When piracy of ideas happen, it’s not often so much piracy of ideas as piracy of work. When an app game is blatantly ripped off by a different studio, they’re not so much copying an idea as they are copying all the work that went into developing that idea and fine tuning it.
Many projects take off, not because their ideas are good, but because they simplify or execute on existing concepts. As we can attribute to Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
In many cases, the originality of the work isn’t the point. Ever since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, the entire concept of the first person shooter video game has basically just been premised on copying that core gameplay and iterating on it endlessly. At the same time, no one goes around saying “this is just Doom again”. Instead, people revel in the ability to enjoy that same gameplay again, in a slightly varied format. The Halo and Call of Duty franchises, for example, are “just shooters”, but they’re also very different variations on the formula, and are extremely popular and respected in their own ways.
The same thing occurs elsewhere. In literature, we have entire swathes of fantasy literature that are inspired in greater or lesser part by the success of Lord of the Rings. In app development, we always joke that “X is like Uber but for…” because Uber is so representative of the kind of success trying to be copied. In many cases, knockoffs can do as well, if not better than, originals - even when they’re very different and made by entirely different people.
The interesting point here is also that it’s not just about what your idea is, but also how you execute on it. History is filled with stories of people who had roughly the same idea - but one person succeeded and the other failed, because they were able to execute on it where the other couldn’t.
Here’s what success ultimately boils down to in most creative endeavors:
The ability to execute on your good ideas.
The ability to execute on your good ideas well.
The ability to execute on your good ideas well, and then advertise and distribute your work effectively.
Very few people will just hear a good idea and immediately have the ability to follow it up with all these other steps. “X is good, in theory.” “Talk is cheap.” We have numerous sayings and idioms about how action matters a lot more than just ideas.
Worse, if you’re worried about someone stealing your (probably uninteresting to them) idea, you probably aren’t getting necessary feedback and support as a natural part of the creation process. It may make sense to labor away at an idea in obscurity, but realistically, it makes sense to share your ideas with others who share your interest in your labor of choice, so that they can give you ideas about what they like and dislike about your work. Editing and feedback is a vital part of writing a good story or crafting a good video game - ultimately, you can never take an objective look at your own work, because you (to relate back to the first part of this post) will care about it more than everyone else.
By necessity, you SHOULD be more excited about your ideas than anyone else. The more important thing - you should be excited enough to follow up on those ideas with long-term action. Very often, you will need to sell your ideas to other people - with great difficulty. It’s comforting and pleasant to believe that it’s just about ideas, but the reality is that ideas are just a small part of the picture.
I don’t mean to make it sound like creative efforts are nothing but hard work. They are - but that’s not the point. The point is that they’re work, all the way through, from beginning to end - and that’s what makes them worthwhile. If it’s worth doing, it’ll be worth doing even if it’s hard and takes a lot of time. The best thing you can do? Stop worrying about hoarding your ideas and just put them into action.
Have ideas - and follow them up. Get feedback. Edit. Don’t be afraid to change your ideas when some part of them isn’t working out.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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