There is no genius idea
11 May 2013

This is the first of a series of blog posts on innovation and the research process. Most of these ideas gradually came to me, first while I was researching for my PhD, then as the need emerged for the design of innovative algorithms in the couple companies I worked.

How do ideas emerge? I bet you can think of a dozen times when you were thinking hard at a problem, and then you jumped up yelling: “Eureka! (or something along those lines). I do. I have seen it happen with countless people in many different situations. And sometimes you are so enthralled with that great, promising idea that you start working on it right away. That’s pretty much the definition of a “genius idea”. And in the excitement, this idea is utterly perfect.

But of course, this perfection is only an illusion. An idea, however great, is bound to be perfected in some way. And this is the gist of this great passage of Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann. This passage is literally at the centre of the book. It is a dialogue between Belzebuth and Adrian Leverkühn. The devil is convincing Adrian to use demoniac inspiration for musical composition.

“Let us just for an instance take the ‘idea’ — what you call that, what for a hundred years or so you have been calling it, sithence earlier there was no such category, as little as musical copyright and all that. The idea, then, a matter of three, four bars, no more, isn’t it? All the residue is elaboration, sticking at it. Or isn’t it? Good. But now we are all experts, all critics: we note that the idea is nothing new, that it all too much reminds us of something in Rimsky-Korsakov or Brahms. What is to be done? You just change it. But a changed idea, is that still an idea? Take Beethoven’s notebooks.There is no thematic conception there as God gave it. He remoulds it and adds ‘Meilleur.’ Scant confidence in God’s prompting, scant respect for it is expressed in that ‘Meilleur’ — itself not so very enthusiastic either. A genuine inspiration, immediate, absolute, unquestioned, ravishing, where there is no choice, no tinkering, no possible improvement; where all is as a sacred mandate, a visitation received by the possessed one with faltering and stumbling step, with shudders of awe from head to foot, with tears of joy blinding his eyes: no, that is not possible with God, who leaves the understanding too much to do. It comes but from the devil, the true master and giver of such rapture.”

Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann, Scribd

So what’s new here? Everybody knows that work is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. But most people mistakenly believe that the effort consists only of implementing the idea: “All the residue is elaboration, sticking at it”. And that’s wrong, of course.

This passage dispells the whole concept that a fantastic idea is an end in itself. It also means that you should not become too dearly attached to great ideas. Instead, you should be ready to amend them, and sometimes to depart from them entirely, to “remould” them.

So, what’s the use of genius ideas? Personally, I have come to believe they are useless. Contrary to common belief, they don’t help jump start a business, and they don’t help overcome the competition. That will be the topic of the next blog post.