Good ideas vs. good execution

A number of experiences recently have reminded me of a passage I quoted in an earlier post about Buckminster Fuller:

During the early years of his life, Bucky had noticed a great many people with ‘good ideas’ who never risked action. Later, as he became more well known, Fuller was perpetually accosted by such individuals who, with the best of intentions, wanted to apprise him of their good ideas, and he became even more aware of the fact that everyone has ideas. Bucky had, however, concluded that merely talking about ideas does not support their advancement or the development of individuals and humanity.

In fact, he found that the majority of people do nothing about their good ideas except engage in seemingly endless discussions. During such discussions, those with the good ideas perpetually attest to the value of their concepts and how their ideas would improve the human condition if only other people would abide by their wisdom.

My experiences have led me to similar conclusions: good ideas are relatively abundant; any execution of them is uncommon; and good execution of good ideas is very rare.

What do you need to execute an idea well?

  • The right knowledge
  • The right skills
  • The right talents
  • The right circumstances
  • The right attitude

Knowledge is acquirable through self-study and transferable from other people. Skills are acquirable through practice but not transferable. Talents are largely immutable in adults. Circumstances can be changed.

As for the last point: do you care to do things well? In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig writes:

Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.

The best students I’ve worked with have the right attitude, talent, and circumstances that encourage them to learn and grow. They are eager to gain knowledge and skills through hands-on projects, and I deeply enjoy helping them to do that.

Those same students will accumulate knowledge and skills even more rapidly once they start working, but often become complacent in the process. By the time you encounter them 5-10 years out of school, many have settled into a comfortable mediocrity. They still have talent, but their knowledge and skills have gotten stale as their attitude has changed.

When I’m interviewing candidates for a job, being interviewed myself, or just meeting prospective colleagues and collaborators for the first time, I look for evidence of the right attitude first. Circumstances usually allow people to learn new knowledge and skills as they go, but people who don’t care that much are unlikely to make the effort. Clearly there are situations where you need someone who already possesses certain knowledge and skills, but without the right attitude the necessary knowledge and skills are still insufficient.