What is your "top idea"?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

After noticing, among other things, that startups seemed to get little done once they went into fund raising mode, venture capitalist Paul Graham makes one of the most profound identifications I have ever seen regarding the creative thought process:

Everyone who's worked on difficult problems is probably familiar with the phenomenon of working hard to figure something out, failing, and then suddenly seeing the answer a bit later while doing something else. There's a kind of thinking you do without trying to. I'm increasingly convinced this type of thinking is not merely helpful in solving hard problems, but necessary. The tricky part is, you can only control it indirectly. [In a note, he calls this "ambient thought". --ed]

I think most people have one top idea in their mind at any given time. That's the idea their thoughts will drift toward when they're allowed to drift freely. And this idea will thus tend to get all the benefit of that type of thinking, while others are starved of it. Which means it's a disaster to let the wrong idea become the top one in your mind.
Graham goes on to discuss two types of "top idea" -- by which he seems to mean something like "primary area of mental focus" -- that can easily come to dominate one's "ambient thinking", crowding out what one is really interested in. These are (1) the problem of raising money (i.e., when that problem is too conceptually distant from or practically disjointed from the desired "top idea"), and (2) disputes.

It is impossible to avoid either completely, but Graham illustrates examples of each and offers some suggestions for reaching the ideal situation of having the top idea you want in its proper place as often as possible.

I feel like I'm gilding the lily when I attempt to add anything to this essay, but I'll try anyway. I think the principle one needs to gain some measure of control in such situations as Graham describes is that values are hierarchical. This allows one to gauge whether a given, unwanted top idea is really worth all the attention one is giving to it and, if so, to realize the importance of dispatching with it quickly, even if it is something one does not particularly wish to deal with.

-- CAV


mtnrunner2 said...

That is a really interesting essay on a topic that has occurred to me in slightly different terms, but was probably crowded out by thoughts of that jerk who tailgated me on the way home from work ;)

If I may gild some more (something I find myself doing with your already well-stated posts), for me it's also matter of clearing my cognitive "inbox". This is about deciding on what's important (the hierarchy of values), but also about getting things done and out of the way according to said hierarchy. This is the sort of thing the various GTD productivity systems aim at. I have to admit I'm only partially successful at implementing them.

Gus Van Horn said...


Regarding GTD, you might like Jean Moroney's Thinking Directions course, which I once called "GTD with Brains." A shortcoming of these systems, as good as they are, is that they don't always account for prioritizing well.

Money as a time sink I find especially interesting. At one extreme, if you haven't found a way to make enough money reliably with your main interest, you can find yourself thoroughly demoralized and making essentially no progress. On the other, you're in a great "zone," with fun and money coming in hand over fist in a great positive feedback loop. How to cross the chasm in between? This essay, while short on specific strategies, at least indicates the nature of the problem.

Amit Ghate said...

Thanks for posting the article Gus, it's very interesting!

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm glad you appreciate it, Amit.

The combination of psycho-epistemological insight and practicality is really striking.