Preface: This guest post is half of a duo (part one by AJ Motia; part two by Kit Kieser). You can read the first part here. Additionally, neither post is an attack on TED, TEDx, or any other idea symposium. Rather, they are personal reflections on the idea industry society has constructed in response to these forums. Kit Kieser’s assertions here do not necessarily represent my beliefs and vice versa.

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

photo credit: stewartbaird via photopin cc

If you ask a group of young, college art students to make work about death, love, time, or change–broad, familiar, and potentially weighty concepts, more than half of the class will, without fail, produce imagery with “blood,” roses, clocks, or butterflies. Most will not have the inclination to make work about the room where Grandma died, the place he stood when he first fell in love, the three generations of her family that live under the same roof, or a handful of coins. (A sense of humor is welcome.)

In the world of fine art, no one really gives a shit about roses or butterflies. There are several reasons why, but primarily we’ve seen that imagery in just about every variation under the sun, over and over again. It has come to have little impact on the viewer. A third generation Ansel Adams-style photograph may be beautifully executed, for example, but it will never and can never have the same cultural impact that Adams’ work did. The man was remarkably influential as a pioneer in landscape photography and environmental activism, after all.

One doesn’t expect every student to come up with brilliantly innovative concepts or new and interesting ways to look at the world. Some students won’t get past roses and butterflies for a few assignments; for some, it may be a couple years. Perhaps the more sophisticated work just hasn’t happened for him or her yet. Perhaps that work is still in the works, because it takes a great deal of rummaging through the small–often terribly bad–ideas to find the big, prodigious ideas floating around in your brain. Sure, there may be a perfectly-formed masterpiece in there, but mostly there are lots of small ideas that need to be strategically piled on top of one another to construct what sort of looks like a big idea. Even then, there’s more grunt work to be done to push the big ideas out into the world. That part takes help.

I show Idea Conference, Inc. style talks–mostly TED or high profile TEDx talks–in my classroom all the time. It’s one of my go-to teaching tools. Specifically, I show talks centering around creativity and the creative process. I can’t say for certain if sharing the talks with my students gets them to make better work. What I do know is that they enjoy the videos a great deal, they gain some new perspectives, and it gets them thinking. Students often leave class feeling uplifted, inspired, and occasionally empowered. It can be very difficult to make art when you’re feeling depressed or even subdued. So, uplifting or inspiring words from me and others is frequently part of what the students need.

Sir Ken Robinson’s talks have changed my life, or at least changed the way I think about creativity, teaching, and my identity. Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown have helped me to evolve the way I think about creativity and how I talk to my students about the creative process and what makes compelling art. I go back to these talks time and time again, and I show the videos in my classes. I’m not alone in my reverence for these speakers, their ideas, and the way they deliver their messages, but talks like these have become the gold standard that many seem to want to recreate–so much so that we’ve watched Idea Conference, Inc. balloon into an idea industry as TED has become a giant corporate brand and more localized groups have hastily formed a line to ride its coattails.

Everyone seems to want to have and share their big idea, even if only for the sake of a line on their resumé. But what constitutes an “idea worth spreading?” Furthermore, what happens when we never actually implement our ideas or fail to move outside of our own community of like-minds and mutual admiration that we begin repeating ourselves, run out of ideas, or all begin to deliver the same ideas in slightly different packages? Has the proliferated idea industry reached its post-modern era?

Bear with me here. In visual art, one major idea of Postmodernism can be grossly simplified by the notion that there are no new ideas–that we have exhausted our creative possibilities. The use of collage and appropriated materials–and ideas–is often a hallmark of postmodern art. That is, an artist may borrow existing ideas or materials and piece them with other existing ideas or materials to create new ideas by recontextualizing the old ones. I assure you the full complexity of this topic is far beyond what would be useful here, but the general concept is illustrative.

We’re starting to see similar postmodern-like activity in the idea industry, especially in the smaller, localized conferences. There seem to be few new ideas being presented there. Instead, the same ideas and concepts are being embedded in topics that are seemingly different but ultimately contain the same appropriated messages. That’s not to say that this can’t be useful, but is the appropriation and/or retelling of the same ideas and the way these ideas are presented actually productive? I’m afraid the law of diminishing returns applies.

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

photo credit: T a k via photopin cc

If a single person stands on stage to give a somewhat sage-like sermon to the group of like-minds, the ideas start to look like the same old roses and butterflies that we’ve seen countless times over. Would it not make more sense to have a panel discussion where a problem is solved or a game plan is made to implement these ideas?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as guilty as any other “slacktivist” that likes to contemplate and deliberate over lofty ideas without ever taking consequential action. But how many times do we have to repeat the same idea, concept, or philosophy to give it legitimacy before implementation becomes the main priority? Perhaps we get a little too wrapped up with congratulating ourselves for having smart ideas with which our equally intelligent peers agree?

It’s okay that we started out with roses and butterflies. They’re integral to the process. Making bad art is a necessary step on the path to making good art, but the good art never comes if it remains an idea without execution. Our ideas can’t evolve without putting them into practice. Visual art has, in part, moved past Postmodernism, but it got there by executing the ideas such to facilitate its progression to new ideas.

On the other hand, if your ideas only ever look like roses and butterflies, that’s okay. Most students that go to art school don’t live out their lives as artists. In fact, very few of them practice art after they graduate, but there was still a great deal of value in their experience. Just because a student doesn’t have the most artistically innovative mind in the room doesn’t mean they’re not creative or don’t have something incredibly valuable to offer. And just because we don’t all have an idea we feel worthy of presenting at Idea Conference, Inc. doesn’t mean that we never will, and it doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally–if not more–valuable now for what really needs to happen: the grunt work. In order for there to be new ideas, we need to implement the ones we have, find out what works and what doesn’t, and watch new ideas grow from that process.


  1. Pingback: I DON’T HAVE A BIG IDEA, AND THAT’S OK | The Pensive Pilcrow

  2. AJ & Kit, thanks for the thought provoking posts – Nathan Jurgenson was not as gentle with his opinions. : ) I know this is an observation in general, but my experience is obviously colored through TED lenses.

    So how do we help people move to execution?

    In my estimation, TED has loaned us a platform whereby we can gather the thinkers and doers… and execution has always been a strong component of our local TEDx. This year’s theme again highlighted doers, not theorists and we’ve all but begged people to engage with the ideas (and from stories, it would indicate that on occasion, it does happen).

    In 2009, Derek Sivers posted a great piece on ideas as a multiplier of execution ( ) – I agree completely. Further, my first TED talk was from Seth Godin on spreading ideas – ( ) – talking about how sliced bread was a only an idea/patent until Wonder came along and executed. [BTW, after that, I engaged with Seth for years and it did change me, substantially.] I know I’m not smart enough to solve this (execution) problem alone – so I’m looking for the discontent people who are ready to make change – not just talk about it.

    Perhaps the TED chassis needs rebuilt (I watch them continue to work on it), but having attended a TED event, I think it’s a tremendous vehicle to move (our) ideas forward. They have “loaned” it to us for pennies on the dollar and allow great freedom to build upon their model… I guess this is my call for idea mechanics to help us make it better.

    The local TEDx purveyor,
    Craig []

  3. For me this was a thought provoking and timely post. I too want to share my “big” ideas. Fortunately for me, I’m privileged to do this weekly while conducting leadership lectures and discussions at work. The majority of these training sessions end with the group focusing on action plans to implement following our discussion.

    I have a couple of big ideas, which I repeat and repackage in presentations outside of my employment. Although I present on a variety leadership, social media, and business topics I continue to harp on connecting to and helping one another. I haven’t found a bigger, better, or more impactful idea and as long as I can introduce this to others I believe it’s my responsibility to share the message – to repeat the idea.

    Which, brings me to mixwest (@mentioned in a tweet of this post). Once again I’ve submitted a presentation proposal based around the idea of helping each other, in this case, strategies to avoid being a “slacktavist” – how to filter through all the great ideas gleaned from Idea Conference, Inc., in part by forming a team (a panel if you will) to discuss idea action plans.

    Is my presentation a rework of an existing idea? Yes it is. Is it overkill? For those who have heard, accepted, and embraced the message – yes it is. Is it needed? Yes, and I thank you for reminding me that any “slacktavist” who hasn’t followed through with the great ideas found at IC inc.might find some use for the discussion.

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