Why do the best ideas seem so obvious?

Photo by Taylor Wright on Unsplash

Why do the best ideas always seem so obvious? And why do we tend to miss obvious ideas all the time? We have this notion about ideas being a rare species that can only be uncovered through great ingenuity, and along comes something which makes us go ‘Why didn’t I think of that?!’

Whether it’s the classic example of wheels-on-a-suitcase or the huge success of Starbucks in a world saturated with cafés, obvious ideas generate a unique combination of recognition and surprise with us: recognition at how simple they are, and surprise at why that idea hadn’t already been discovered (preferably by us).

The word ‘idea’ almost has a lost-treasure-like aura around it. Which is probably why we rarely look under our own noses for ideas. We think we need extraordinary vision to think of a powerful idea, and therefore spend our time looking far away into the distance. The shock of seeing someone else come up with an obvious idea is the sudden realization that the most valuable gems were always buried in our backyard.

So why do we miss obvious ideas? One reason could be that our brains are biased towards noticing surprising things in the environment. Meanwhile, ‘obvious’ means everything is going as planned, and therefore no additional attention or effort is needed. And that’s why we find it so easy to ignore even something right in front of our eyes. Churchill knew about this tendency of ours when he said:

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again.

A related point is that since most obvious ideas are highly likely to have already been taken, we mentally write off anything that seems obvious. It usually takes deep immersion and interest in a field to be able to pick out such subtle nuances.

Finally, human understanding is simply more comfortable with ideas represented in concrete, rather than abstract form. A picture is worth a thousand words precisely because it makes a concept come to life: reading about the beauty of a landscape is simply no match for seeing an actual picture.

This means that the power of an obvious idea is not always apparent when it’s merely being discussed as a theoretical possibility. But we immediately grasp it when it is implemented in the real world. For most people, seeing an idea come to life is the first time they think about it. To be able to do this before someone else implements it requires a keenness of observation that is not common.

So, is there a way to skirt around these blindspots and build the ability to find obvious, but powerful ideas? Paul Graham, investor and YCombinator founder, has suggested a possible approach.

According to Graham, the most valuable insights are both general and surprising. Such insights result when you start from what is already well-understood, and try to find something moderately new within it. Now this is a pretty hard combination to achieve. Ideas that are both surprising and general are usually all taken because of how valuable they are: a novel idea that can apply to a vast territory (or market) will not stay unexploited for long.

However, there is still a process that we can follow to try and unearth such insights. Graham’s advice is to start from the most general ideas and try to add a ‘small delta of novelty’. Even if this delta is quite small, it can have a huge impact simply because it springs from a very large base of an already accepted idea.

This method shows that good ideas don’t have to come only from experts. In fact, expertise can prevent us from seeing that powerful insights often result from small shifts in viewpoint. If we can curb our need to be seen as visionaries and sniff closer to the ground, we could open up ourselves to some amazing discoveries. And these will be what people will call obvious in retrospect.

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