Inspired by a recent popular post on HN about a guy who’s about to turn 30 and laments the lack of actually doing anything in his life…

Ideas

Some people regret the fact that they can come up with lots of great ideas, but cannot execute them. Others are frustrated that they can execute well, but cannot come up with an idea that is original or noteworthy. I personally find myself in the latter – but either way, people are going to be upset that they find themselves on one side of the balance and lack the ability to do the other.

I used to think that ‘ideas are nothing, execution is everything’. I think this idea has been spread wide and far by people who find themselves on the former side of the aforementioned scale, thinking: ‘I’ve got lots of ideas but haven’t prospered – therefore ideas must be worthless’.

Nowadays, I’ve come to the conclusion that ideas are just as valuable as an execution skillset. I’ve spend the last year executing well – i’ve come up with 10 original iPhone app ideas, and executed and shipped all of them in my spare time (and they’re not just “fart apps” – they are useful utilities). So by any measure, i think i can safely claim to be good at execution.

But here’s the rub – 2 of my apps are the only ones that have done well. And, to me, these were among the most poorly executed of my apps – they certainly didn’t take more than a couple weeks each to develop, with no marketing whatsoever. So, i’ve come to conclude that the ideas behind these apps, in terms of creating something that people actually want to buy, have made them successful.

For an opposing example, let’s pick on my first app, which allows you to enter your 20 favourite recipes. It will then choose a week’s worth of dinners at random, and compile a combined shopping list for you, and let you tick off the items as you purchase them. Now the market has decided that this idea isn’t worth paying $1 for. Hey, what gives? I executed pretty well – its not an awful app, why won’t people buy it? I can only conclude – the idea sucked.

So, if you’re what we call in Australia an ‘Ideas Man’, don’t be too upset – the world needs your great ideas just as much as it needs people like me who can execute on them.

Growing

And who’s to say you’re at one end of the scale or the other? Who’s to say that i’m good with ideas, therefore i must be awful at execution? Who’s to say that if i’m good at grinding out the work and getting things done, I mustn’t be very creative?

The two skills aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason you can’t be good at both. If you’re great at one, there’s no reason you can’t grow to become good at the other. People can grow and change, if they believe they can. I mean, i’m sure you’re better at a lot of things than you were 10 years ago.

Becoming an Ideas Man

This part is for me: how to get better at ideas. James Altucher talks a lot about your ‘Idea Muscle’ – basically his idea is that the creative part of your brain is plastic, and if you practice enough, it will get better at coming up with ideas.

So his exercise is to spend 10 mins each day coming up with ideas. Just get a post it note, and scribble down 10 ideas each morning, to get the juices flowing. Start with writing down terrible ideas, just so long as you’re coming up with any ideas you’ll be working out your brain. And inevitably the ideas will improve with practice.

It’s worth a try – i’ll see how I go with it. If nothing else, it’ll provide me with, on average, as poor ideas as I already have – but due to the volume, there’ll surely be a couple of gems in there that’ll be worth executing on.

(And ladies, the reason I don’t say ‘Ideas Person’ is because in Australia, ‘Ideas Man’ is a bit of an amusing meme.)

Become an Execution Man

How to get better at ‘getting things done’? Well, for me, i’ve found the key is to start small. Recognise that you have a set ‘attention span’ and work on projects that fit into that span. And each time you ‘ship’, your confidence and thus your ‘attention span’ will bump up a notch.

For instance, my attention span for any project is about a month. If anything takes longer than that, i’ll become demotivated, disinterested, and bored – it simply won’t get done. So the key is – when starting a project, i think ‘can i do this in less than a month?’. If so, i’m golden – i’m confident i can get through it with my motivation intact.

If you bite off more than you can chew, you’ll end up with a string of large projects that you only got ½ way through and abandoned them. Don’t be tempted to take on those large projects – if it’s ego, or ambition making you do it, well swallow your pride and try biting off something a bit more ‘bite sized’.

Babies start with small spoonfulls of smooshy stuff: if you feed them too much they’ll spit it out. You’re like that – start with small smooshy projects, and as you personally grow in your ability to execute, work your way up to a massive steak of a project.

The key is to start small, and take on bigger projects as your capacity grows bigger. Just be sure to take on projects that you can finish – because each time you finish, your confidence will grow. Don’t take on projects that you can’t finish – because when you fail, you’ll shrink. As you stick to achievable projects, your confidence, attention span, and motivation will grow.

Keep growing :)

Thanks for reading! And if you want to get in touch, I'd love to hear from you: chris.hulbert at gmail.