The Idea Grip

A professor once gave me some advice: “Hold your ideas firmly with the tips of your fingers.”

He picked up a piece of paper to demonstrate. He could wave it around, or walk with it on a windy day, and the sheet would stay in place. If you yanked it away, the sheet would slip through his fingertips and drift away.

The professor was a scientist, and in his metaphor the hand that pulled the idea away was new evidence. It’s a difficult thing to have a good idea, and an even more difficult thing to believe in it. This challenge often leads us to guard our ideas with jealousy and passion. This is a good thing, to a degree. If we don’t hold firm, minor criticisms and bad days will tear ideas away. If we hold with balled fists, ideas cling to us when they’re no longer useful. The key, as in most things, is balance.

In science, particularly in fields with long and rich histories, some ideas become so engrained in a generation of scholars that they can’t be replaced until the scholars themselves are replaced by a new generation. This occurs despite sometimes overwhelming evidence against the older theory. The result of this phenomenon is a long-overdue paradigm shift.

In faster moving fields like the web, these shifts occur on a fraction of the time scale, but the principle remains the same. I think about my professor’s advice often, and strive to reflect upon and reconsider my ideas as things change. Hopefully I’m holding on to them just firmly enough.