ml_theory (Diagram from NASA Project Mercury)

Poor communication is the killer of good ideas

One day, you come across a great idea. Maybe you were brushing your teeth or having your morning coffee when it hit you. In that moment, you are struck by its elegance and potential to improve the lives of many. Gripped by your conviction, you set to work. As days pass, your thoughts mature as you write up the details. You race to finish, covering your designs in annotations where, in your rush, you previously forgot to add essential details. What can you say, you are on a mission.

Finally, you sit back and admire your masterpiece, but you are not done yet. It will take money to bring your innovations to the world, money you don’t have. Not to worry, you think, it is so obvious how life-changing this is. Off to the venture capitalists you go, surely they will feel the same. In fancy glass boardrooms, you give your pitch, aided by your hastily created but meticulous designs. Your pitch closes and you look up from your notes. To your surprise, sqiunts, furrowed brows, and furtive glances return your gaze. You field questions, but as hard as you try no one sees your vision. Deflated, you come home empty handed.

Innovation Syndrome

Before shedding any tears for this hypothetical genius, remember that many of the best ideas are initially ignored. The challenge with innovative ideas is that - as Paul Graham noted in his post on independent thinking - they must be both contrary to popular thought and correct. The latter ensures the idea can (and should) exist, and the former ensures it is novel. However, in many cases, you need a third facet as well - the ability to convince someone else to share your vision, ideally someone who can provide the resources necessary for turning your idea into a product. Being contrarian and correct is a rare pair, but by definition it also implies few will immediately see the value of your ideas. Unless you are independently wealthy or renowned or both, you will likely need help from others to turn your dream into a reality.

Communicate ideas like they’re for sale

Though research is not nearly as bounded by capital as innovation, the importance of persuasive communication remains. Historically, many groundbreaking advances in technology and science have risen from the minds of individuals. The creation of an idea, as opposed to an innovation, only costs someone with the right mind working on the right problem at the right time. Even so, the best idea is worthless if it is trapped in the mind of someone who cannot communicate it.

For a long time I struggled to fully grasp this idea of proper communication. “I know how to communicate with people, I do it all the time!” Yet clearly there must be some distinction between how peope convey ideas; certainly we don’t all achieve the same results. Consider the adage of the traveling salesman. They reach out to you, unannounced, and explain to you why you need something you may know nothing about. Growing up, I always felt sales of this kind had negative connotations, pushy people pitching you frivolous things.

Yet, despite my inclination to view sales in poor light, I now undeniably see the importance of its core tenet - persuasion - in research and every day life. No matter what you are doing, you are selling something. It might be an idea, a budget, or even yourself (think job interview, not the other thing). Now, excellent ideas may require little persuasion, but that certainly is not guaranteed. Being contrary to popular belief is at times at the center of groundbreaking research and innovation. Before Uber, how many people thought letting strangers drive them around would be a good idea, if they thought about it at all? An enormous part of being successful with new ideas is getting someone else to understand why they are so valuable.