Why Do I Constantly Feel My Ideas Are Dumb?

The last writing experience I had in this space was quite the roller coaster. I had an idea pop into my head while I was doing something unrelated. Without a deluge of meetings or pressing tasks in front of me, I cranked out the post it in a couple of hours. 

Don’t worry, the roller coaster part is coming.

Since I had discussed the idea with some before writing, I decided to send them the draft. I couldn’t wait to hear how amazing the wordsmithing was. Aaaaaand that didn’t happen. I worded some things in a way I didn’t intend, and that made me wonder if my idea for a post was any good.

What I really wanted was for them to pat me on the head and say how awesome I am despite my insistence it wasn’t. After enough trolling for compliments, I came to my senses and clicked “publish”.

Was the idea perfectly fleshed out and written? It never is. After a day or two, people started writing to say thanks for the article. My panic, which isn’t anyone else’s fault, formed because I had a moment when I worried people will think my work is dumb.

I’m embarrassed how often that happens with more than my blog. I also know I’m not alone.

There are countless attempts to help us deal with the panic. Some feel that you need to follow these steps and you’ll feel better. Others think you need to get over yourself cause you’re not as awesome as you think. Turns out, it’s also a great idea to embrace the stupidity of your idea! In a lot of my work, many will say you’re doing it wrong or using the wrong tool to harness your idea.

Those are helpful depending on where you are in your journey to get the most out of your work. It’s based on the premise that there are such things as dumb ideas and a concrete method to tell if it actually is one.

I’m at the stage where there are no such things as dumb ideas. 

Doesn’t make my stance more evolved or superior to someone else’s view. Especially when you consider my own ideas aren’t always the best. I cheer for the Dallas Cowboys. There is also a lot capitalistic society can do to show you the validity of your idea. Businesses open and close every day. So if your business failed, it must have been stupid?

There’s also the social component of dumb ideas. Despite what Alex Osborne told us to do in ideation sessions, at least one person feels their idea is bad. I don’t need a scientific study to know that. Verbal and non-verbal statements all do this.

We are competitive people, especially with people who are on the same team. Many geographical and company cultures encourage the hell out of you competing with your neighbor. If everyone is pushing for that next promotion and bonus, then everyone will be kicking ass. Rising tides and all that.

Nothing bad comes from that, right? 

We should look at how we process these feelings. Here are some things I’ve been trying lately.

Realize you’re not the only one.

That shame spiral gets deep in a hurry, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t matter if it’s your first sprint as a scrum master. Or if you’ve been leading delivery or transformation for decades. There’s a moment when you suggested something. You know it will work. Teammates agree and want to give it a try. It gets shot down by someone, though, and you keep going with the status quo.

I’ve seen so many aspiring-whatever-they-do people get shot down for any number of reasons. Their face falls. Hell, I’ve been that person this week! The idea would have been fine to try. Often we can’t know all the reasons why something can’t work. Some of the reasons might not even be good ones.

Whatever the reason, the idea you suggested isn’t going to be taken into consideration. Like the form email from HR saying they reviewed your resume and blah, blah, blah. It’s not the direction they are going right now.

Please know the thoughts of others on your idea don’t mean shit in terms of validity. Your idea has value, regardless of someone using it or even if it doesn’t work as you think it could. Ideas have all sorts of ways they can be successful. Even if it’s to show you should do something else. Especially if you didn’t intend it to work out that way.

Someone in a similar role elsewhere could use it. Have you considered sharing your idea in a different forum or medium? Sometimes feedback can polish it a bit, and all we need is to request it. They could set it to the side for now and think of another one?

There’s no real advice to give on this specific point. It sucks that we have to feel this way about anything and I want you to know you aren’t alone. To remind you if someone has that take, doesn’t make them correct. Especially if it is your boss or client. They got their own mess going on completely unrelated to your idea. They had to make a decision and it doesn’t always go our way.

You might feel it doesn’t go your way much at all, or ever. Things like how we look, sound, where we come from, and a lot more get in the way of people recognizing our idea’s value. That’s even more ridiculous. As a white male, I’m all too privileged for my idea to have the best possible environment for adoption. None of those characteristics grant any of our ideas extra value. 

So, we know our ideas are fine and there is something we can do with it. Doesn’t always feel that way. Please let me know if I can ever listen to your idea with a more open mind.

Ideas don’t resonate for many reasons.

I can’t even get into all the psychological aspects of this issue, and I’m not going to promise a solution either. Many studies focus on the environment, childhood experience, and processes. Resolving those challenges requires something no one person can accomplish. If you wrote a blank check to one of the major consulting firms, they would have the same results.

If you are feeling as frustrated I’ve been, it can feel daunting to process. Trust me. I get it.

Living with a genetic disease with no cure feels daunting every damn day. We are also in the midst of pulling out of a global pandemic that has changed work on a daily basis. My emotions get so out of whack, and I’ve shared with you before how challenging that can be.

Some organizations try to assist with this process with training. Going through a session about unconscious bias was incredibly eye-opening. The facilitator did an amazing job of reminding me of the ideal outcome.

We can’t see the bias we bring to an idea as personal criticism. That would mean if I don’t agree with every notion, there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve never tried it before. I could have seen it fail in a previous job. Some content I recently consumed advocated for something else. 

None of those statements point to a character flaw.

It does reveal an opportunity for me. It harms nothing to see the idea more fully before deciding upon validity. The reasons for not giving it a shot can be used as a roadmap for getting it ready for prime time. Try it on one team at first.

Don’t see the idea for how it’s presented, or who is presenting the idea. See the idea.

Do something about it when it happens to others.

You wanna know how easy it is to spot when someone else feels like their ideas are dumb? We feel it all the time. We all may not display it the exact same way. We display control in our own way. The general information is there for you to act upon though.

There are those who respond with assertiveness or aggression. These are the folks who, for a variety of reasons, have a chip on their shoulder. Others regress into a shell of protection and often don’t come out for a while. I identify with both of those approaches because I’ve displayed them at different life stages. Hopefully, when I explode it’s more muted, and the shell isn’t home to me for long.

Those aren’t the only two ways of reacting, but you get the idea.

Since it’s much easier to see it when others react, we are in a prime position to step in to assist. It’s not the idea itself I’m interested in rescuing. As mentioned above, there are a variety of reasons why the idea is valid and yet doesn’t make sense right now. I can’t ethically advocate for us to make every idea valid all the time. What I can do is ask that we care for the person at the moment and how they process the next steps.

Asking more clarifying questions on the idea can allow the person to feel more heard for speaking up. Perhaps we can validate with the individual they are valued and the idea might make sense after a period of time. You don’t even have to do so publicly (although, the more others see you being more inclusive the better). We all have the ability to help create an environment where there are no bad ideas. You have to speak up.

I’ve found it helpful to use facts to discuss an idea, and emotions to discuss the person conveying them. Whenever you hear someone responding to an idea emotionally, it often has nothing to do with the idea itself. Someone criticizing my work from an emotional place has more to do with them than with myself.

This is why we can all use different tools and frameworks to get our jobs done and still get along. I don’t care what scaling approach you use, or which tool you enter backlog items. There are a million reasons why either might or might not succeed in your org. It has nothing to do with the idea itself. So why criticize the idea?

So, what’s next?

I’m not looking for a pat on the head this time. Other than a few random clicks, nothing may come from this post. Nobody is going to kick down my door wanting me to keynote thanks to this. Others may read this to be polite and move on with their day. It doesn’t change the validity of the idea, and I’m proud of my work. One of you reading this got exactly what you needed at the time. I know it’s what I needed.

Click publish sooner next time. Someone will be glad you did.

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