Watch Out for “Good” Ideas

Whenever I hear unanimous opinion a new idea or plan I have is “good”, I get suspicious.

Until recently, however, I couldn’t articulate the cause of that suspicion. After all, if most people think an idea is good, shouldn’t that give me more confidence in it, not less?

I think I’ve figured out the trigger for my mistrust. Normally when I start a new project, I get mixed reactions. Some people think its great, others think it’s a waste of time and many other people either don’t care or don’t understand. This happens a lot.

I heard it when I started an online business. “That’s not a real job.” “Who’s going to pay you?” “That sounds fake.”

I heard it when I wanted to move to France. “But you don’t speak French…” “Won’t that be too expensive?” “The French aren’t friendly, you should go somewhere else.”

I heard it when I planned to start the MIT Challenge. “People don’t care about learning, all they want is a degree.” “Sounds like a lot of work.” “Huh?”

Of course, for each of these I also had people who thought the idea was terrific. The feedback wasn’t all negative, just completely unpredictable.

Looking back, I see that the projects that gathered the most confusion, celebration and discouragement, were by far the most profitable. Not all of them panned out—but in most cases failure was cheap and forgettable. Who cares that I started out this blog, not to write, but to produce a goal-setting game? (Nobody, because it was terrible.)

A Flipped Intuition

Over time, my successes from these mixed-feedback projects flipped my intuition for undertaking projects. Now, instead of feeling good about undertaking something that had unanimous appeal and feeling worried about projects with mixed feedback, that sentiment was reversed.

Now I’m more worried about projects that are “an obvious next step for you” or “sound like a good idea”. The safe bets now feel like they carry a lot more risk, and now I think I understand why.

Shifting the Burden of Research

Whenever I undertake projects that elicit mixed reactions, I research the heck out of it. I carefully examine what I want to do, why I want to do it and try to anticipate and reduce opportunity and failure costs. The critiques charge me to patch up weaknesses in a project which may be riddled with them.

Contrast this with “sounds good” projects. Because you get mild encouragement from everyone, you don’t question the fundamental assumptions. Why are you doing it? What benefits do you expect to achieve? What basis do you have for expecting them?

These questions go unasked because nobody pushes you to ask them. Discouragement and outright haters serve a useful purpose here. They force hard-nosed introspection you’re unlikely to get from sycophantic conformists.

Feeling Safe Promotes Dangerous Actions

An interesting tidbit of psychological research is that people drive safer when they aren’t wearing seatbelts. This doesn’t cancel out the safety of wearing one, but it does mean that feeling safer makes you worry less about driving cautiously.

In contrast, when you feel at risk, what do you do? You prepare like crazy. You plan for contingencies. You research possible outcomes. You brace yourself for worst cases.

A little fear helps you focus. Too much causes you to break down. The ideal amount of danger is one that encourages preparation but doesn’t discourage action.

The problem is that ‘good’ ideas are often not protective like a seatbelt. They may be just as risky and dangerous as a less conventional plan. But because they feel safe and normal, they promote a casualness that is often misguided.

Should You Go to University?

No question fits this pattern more than going to university. I personally think university is a great idea for many people. Even the people who can self-educate, university offers accreditation and signaling that you can’t get on your own. For many people it’s a great investment.

Except when its not. Racking up six-figure debt for anything that doesn’t offer excellent job prospects may be enlightening, but it’s way riskier than doing a start-up, travelling the world or even skipping school entirely to do something daring. Risk, in this sense doesn’t make a project good or bad, it just makes it have a higher variability of outcomes.

Yet this is also an investment that generates unanimous applause. School may be a great choice, but because it is a ‘good’ idea, it encourages a carelessness in its research and execution that hurts many people who would otherwise benefit from it.

Why are You Wasting Money on Rent?

Home ownership is another ‘good’ idea that will get your back patted by those around you and is rarely questioned thoroughly. To most people the alternative, renting, is an obvious waste of money.

Owning can be great. You get control, access to property that is difficult to rent and avoid loathsome landlords. Mortgage payments are also commit yourself to investing some of your money each month in a fixed asset, which you might have otherwise spent. For some people, home ownership is a great decision.

Except when its not. Mortgage payments can be more than 50% interest—meaning even for home owners, half of the money they pay is ‘waste’. Ownership also entails hidden costs like maintenance, insurance and property tax. Housing is also illiquid and undiversified.

I’ll probably buy a house when I’m confident I’ll stay put for several years or more and I want the space and freedom to customize my living arrangements. But buying just because it’s a ‘good’ idea? No thank you.

Be Your Own Nay-Sayer

My advice is simple: if everyone around you is encouraging a choice, be the person who questions it. Not because the advice is bad (many ‘good’ ideas really are just that, good) but because risk-proofing and research shouldn’t be ignored just because a choice is ‘safe’.

Second, if your plan is getting both hate and praise, that means it is more uncertain. But, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea. Many great, even safe, projects have mixed feedback because they are unusual and people don’t have experience with them.

However, if an idea gets unanimously bad feedback from people who are experienced with it—take heed. The idea might still be a good one, but the research and hard-nosed introspection you need should go up a notch. And, if afterwards you’re still convinced it’s worth a shot, you should prepare your worst case thoroughly.

No idea should be considered ‘safe’ or ‘obvious’ without due process. When that happens, you get lazy and careless. Tear apart the ‘good’ ideas you have, in order to make them great ones.