Sometime, over 40,000 years ago, someone decided to put images of human hands on the cave pictured above. It turned out to be a good idea. This painting has given scientists information on life in the Upper Paleolithic, raised questions about the capacity of Neandrathal man to create art, and sparked debate about which species in the homo genus created it. Other later cave paintings depict other ideas: Bulls, horses, rhinoceros, people.
I wasn’t there in the Paleotlithic but I doubt that the images we are seeing in caves were the first ones ever drawn. I imagine that drawing images in sand and other less permanent media happened. I suspect that the only reason we have cave paintings is because at some point somebody decided they wanted to be able to save their idea, to keep it longer or perhaps forever.
Every day, 7 billion of us have untold numbers of ideas. So what makes a person decide that an idea is worth saving? What makes us pause and make a note in our Evernote App or Moleskine journal? What inspires us to make a video of our idea on YouTube or write a book? We can’t always be sure that an idea is a “good” one or even what the criteria for a good idea is. It usually comes down to belief.
In the past several centuries, the ability to save ideas was relegated to the few who were deemed skillful or divinely inspired. Books were written in monasteries, then disseminated by printing presses, and as ideas became easier to save, more people saved them. But, and this is very important, saving an idea doesn’t make it a good idea, just a saved one. Somewhere along the line we began to get the notion that only a few select people were capable of having a good idea, because only a few select people were capable of saving them. Even in the 21st century, many mental health professionals and educators cling to the notion that peer-reviewed work published in journals is the apex of quality. If it is written, if it was saved by a select few it must be a good idea. If you have any doubt of what I’m talking about just Google “DSM V.”
With each leap in human technology comes the power to save more ideas and then spread them. People who talk about things going viral often forget that an idea has to be saved first, and that in essence something going viral is really a form of society saving an idea. If anything, technology has improved the democratization of education and ideas.
This makes many of us who grew up in an earlier era nervous and frustrated. We call the younger generation self-absorbed rather than democratizing. We grumble, “what makes you think you should blog about your day, take photos of your food, post links to cute kitten videos?” We may even take smug self-satisfaction that we aren’t contributing to the static. I think that’s a bad idea, although it clearly has been saved from earlier times.
40,000 years from now, our ideas may take on meanings we never anticipated, like cave drawings. Why were kittens so important to them? In the long view I think we remember that people have to believe they have an good idea before they take the leap of faith to save it. The citizens of the future may debate who saved kitten videos and why, but it will be taken as given that they must have been important to many of us.
What if everyone had the confidence to believe that they had an idea worth saving? What if everyone had the willingness to believe that it just might be possible that their idea was brilliant? Each semester I ask the students in my class to raise their hand if they think they can get an A- or higher in the class, and most do. Then I ask them to raise their hand if they think they can come up with in an idea in this class that could change the world. I’ve never had more than 3 hands go up. That’s sad.
This is why I admire the millennials and older groups who take advantage of social media and put their ideas out there. I doubt that they are all good ideas, but I celebrate the implicit faith it takes to save them. Anyone, absolutely anyone at all, can have a good idea. It may not get recognized or appreciated, but now more than ever it can get saved. Saving an idea is an act of agency. It is a political act. Saving an idea is choosing to become just a bit more visible. On the most basic level saving an idea is a celebration and affirmation of the self. Think about that, and dare to jot down, draw, record or otherwise save one of your ideas today. I just did and it feels great. Then maybe you can even share it with someone else.
What makes a person decide an idea is worth saving?