The Tyranny of Big Ideas

I am a person who loves big ideas. You may have noticed.

I can’t really help it. I get inspired by other people’s bold thoughts, sweeping visions and prophetic pronouncements. I walk around with this sense that we are living in radical times and believe that the scale of change around us requires a comparable measure of audacity, brilliance and courage.

I am not alone. The world is filled with people who are ever-watchful for the next brilliant solution to a once seemingly intractable problem. You find these people, people like me, more often than not, watching TED Talk videos.

John Spencer sees a problem with TED Talks. TED Talks are conceived as being a way to jump start meaningful conversation about worthwhile ideas. The point of the conversation is, of course, to vet the ideas and improve them through critique. Spencer doubts the quality of the conversation that follows.

Spencer describes TED Talks as a kind of “Secular Scripture”, a text that  cannot be refuted. For Spencer, TED Talks are sometimes brandished as a kind of idea bomb that gets tossed his way whenever he offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing wisdom. This has not happened to me, but I see the danger of the experience he describes.

Big ideas can be habit-forming. Big ideas can be addictive. There is an element of wishful thinking that sometimes hounds the believer of big ideas, a willingness to trade away the obligation to be skeptical and mistrustful of ideas that have not yet proven themselves or arrive unaccompanied by detail and practice.

This is where most big ideas suffer. Big ideas are often celebrated and lauded before they get connected to details and practical application. Worse, big ideas get praised as half-solutions before the nature of the problem is fully explored. And then, the person who is casting doubt is a naysayer. But the work of skeptic is necessary. Otherwise, we lurch from big idea to big idea, each time willing ourselves to believe that problems have been solved, really and permanently solved, simply because we would like for them to be solved.

Sometimes big ideas are used as a tool for political manipulation. (Recommended listening: DecodeDC’s “There’s a Plan for That”)

It can very difficult to argue with big ideas. This is partly because bold ideas are generally conceptual in nature and painted with broad strokes. It is hard to deconstruct broad strokes without nitpicking. Nobody likes a nitpicker.

Sometimes, big ideas arrive with such force that there is no space left for critique or examination. In Spencer’s view, if TED Talks are a conversation, the original presenter gets to speak with a megaphone and everyone else answers in scattered whispers. The TED Talk viewer is given easy access to new, challenging ideas but does not often see those ideas presented in context with opposing, contrarian views. In this way, TED Talks can sometimes become a kind of sales pitch — quick, to-the-point, ready to sell and, ultimately, unanswerable.

Spencer’s critique is fair. Like Spencer, I think TED is an excellent site rich with powerful, challenging ideas that deserve to be shared and discussed widely. We just need to be sure that we aren’t giving these ideas a pass just because they are big, bold and lovely. Ideas get improved by being pulled apart, debated, and, sometimes, refuted. Not all ideas deserve to be implemented. Not all big ideas need to be tried.

More to the point for me, there is a warning here to beware the lure of the big idea as a magic tonic that cures all ills. People like me are called idealists. People like me have a lot to offer the world, but we have to be careful. We should never expect big ideas to save the world. Ideas never saved anyone or made things better. Hard work makes things better. Easy to forget sometimes that the way to change the world is to work hard. The process is iterative. The process is incremental. The process can be frustratingly slow. Without the work, however, the idea is just a false comfort, a fun diversion that keeps us from the discomfort of disagreement and uncertainty. Nothing useful ever happened without discomfort and uncertainty. We work through that.

We need big ideas. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t need to be so complex. Sometimes we need smaller idea, so long as it is the right small idea and it is coupled with lots and lots of work.

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3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Big Ideas

  1. I love TED, and though I’m generally skeptical of everything, I’d never really approached the whole concept skeptically. Interesting. It’s not surprising when you think about it because TED grew out of a culture of sales pitches, which each talk is, structurally. Although I don’t think they’d be improved by all becoming debates, it would be nice if there were a more effective method of feedback and discussion beyond the comment threads. Because really, who reads comments? (Irony intended.)

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