Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

Let's Cool It With the Big Ideas

I don’t have a big idea, and I don’t want one. I don’t like big ideas. And I’m not alone. Distaste for grandiose notions is embedded in our language: “What’s the big idea?” “You and your bright ideas.” “Whose idea was this?” “Me and my big ideas.” “Don’t get smart with me.”

When we say our children are “starting to get ideas,” we’re not bragging. It gives us pause to hear our spouse say “I have an idea!” If our boss says it, we panic unless we’re sufficiently quick-witted to spill coffee on the iPad the boss has just used to Google some portentous concept.

This is not anti-intellectualism. This is experience. The 20th century was a test bed for big ideas—fascism, communism, the atomic bomb. Liberty was also a powerful abstraction in the 20th century. But liberty isn’t a big idea. It’s a lot of little ideas about what individuals want to say and do.

I like little ideas. What Alexander Graham Bell thought up occupied less space than a flower vase. Now it’s so small that I have to search all my pockets to discover I’ve received a spam text. Thomas Edison’s moment of enlightenment could be sketched in a cartoon thought balloon. (Although once government started having deep thoughts about it, we got compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and now I need to don a hazmat suit if the dog knocks over the floor lamp.) There was Henry Ford’s Model T, of modest dimensions, and the bread box–size gizmo that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were fiddling with in the garage. But in 1875, 1879, 1908, or 1976, we wouldn’t have called any of these Big Ideas. We couldn’t foresee their consequences.

We still don’t know what ideas will have which results. But I fear the bigger, the worse. And we’re back in an era of big ideas. Our financiers have very big ideas. The rest of us are left looking for investment advisers clueless enough to be honest.

“Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come,” said Victor Hugo. In either case, run.

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