Ideas are Mortal

Today I was doing some research for work and was overcome with a weird feeling. It’s back-to-school time for the ungraduated among us, so my college experience has been on my mind, and I realized that the feeling I got was similar to the one I get when I think about college. Of course you can think about the parties you went to or the relationships that you had, but those don’t give you a lasting feeling. What I feel is this: skating to the D. H. Hill library at midnight with a backpack full of books, getting ready to get lost in the book stacks and stay up all night studying for a morning exam. It’s going to class knowing you’re going to learn something new and potentially awesome. It’s the wide-open possibilities of new experiences, of interesting people or opportunities just around the corner.

It’s exciting because it’s served with a healthy dose of uncertainty. Anything was possible, even abject failure and homelessness, thought you might not have realized it at the time. A large part of the joy hinged on that fact–you were completely in control of where your life was headed, and the fact that you were succeeding was a huge source of confidence. Personally, I switched majors 3 times in one summer, theoretically touching on 4 different life-paths, before I settled into one. That could have backfired, but I knew it wouldn’t, because I was (probably naively) optimistic. That feeling kept me positive.

What I felt today was different, though. It came when I was looking for some info on a piece of software I use (Google Analytics). I started at the website of a well-known expert in the field, Avinash Kaushik at his The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly piece. That article led me to his Definitions, Models, and a Reality Check piece. That article led me to his Tracking the Online Impact of your Offline Campaigns piece, and that article led me to David Hughes’ website because he coined the term “non-line” that Avinash uses (it means marketing efforts that exist both on- and offline, like the color of a logo).

Check out his site for a sec, it’s pretty cool.

Anyways, I was reading bits of literature that were picked by a guy who defined a term that named a philosophy that a marketing expert uses to build international business practices. That interconnected, exploratory feeling came back, except it was different. Now, I wasn’t picking what I wanted to major in. I’ve been in this field for over 3 years and I love it. This is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life. The uncertainty is gone, and it’s just that controlled confidence part. Before, I was picking a plot of land–by the sea, in the mountains, on the moon–and now I’m building the house. Some of the structure I make myself, but a lot of it comes from other people–from either their hands helping me or from standing on a foundation they’ve laid.

Back in college, you weren’t making a difference. You couldn’t have been, you didn’t have the power. You had to sit there and absorb a ton of information before you’re able to act upon it and make any kind of reasonable contribution. It’s only after a couple years of action that you can start to create a purpose that is helpful, where the energy you put out can be greater than the energy you have to take in. It snowballs. As you hone skills and absorb more information (now, only very specialized stuff that you can quickly turn into fuel), you’re able to build a house that is unique, that other people can use, that other people want to see.

Now, you can easily build the same house as someone else. The blueprints are out there and the fact that they work is proven. But, who wants to live in those cookie-cutter neighborhoods? When you’re gone, will people use one of those houses as an example of excellence?

If you pay special attention to what is already built, and you stand on the shoulders of the giants you want to take from (but not imitate), your house should be bigger and better than those before you. The unoriginal pieces decay over time, but the truly revolutionary parts are made of brick and stand as testament to what motivation, vision, and hard work can build. It reminds me of the diagram of what a PhD degree looks like. That tiny bump. Except, knowledge–even the super specialized knowledge of a PhD–is useless without action. You can have the best ideas in the world, but they’re lost unless you do something with them. Ideas are mortal. Instead, use 1) your ideas and 2) the buildings of others to make something immortal.


I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with this idea of making a lasting effect lately…I guess I’m in a philosophical phase of my life. To be honest, I haven’t done much myself to make a lasting effect except write a couple of ideological blog posts. Hopefully soon there will be less ranty, heady stuff and more “here’s what I built”. We’ll see. Anyways, hope you enjoyed it and it made you think. Thanks for reading.

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    1. says

      “But, who wants to live in those cookie-cutter neighborhoods? When you’re gone, will people use one of those houses as an example of excellence?”

      Check out the book “How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built.” It’s fascinating to see how people adapt buildings over time.

      Thanks for sharing the “Ph.D. in Pictures” diagram — I hadn’t seen that before. Reminds me of the joke about the biology professor who studies black fire ants — and how his wife is in a “totally different field”… because she studies red fire ants.

      • says

        Cool idea for a book! Didn’t know that kind of stuff existed.

        I love that diagram, it’s so simple but true. Such a cool idea that these people are learning things no one else in the world knows, expanding the human race’s knowledge that one tiny bit.

        Thanks for reading Karl I’m glad you liked it.

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