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Keep Your Eye on the Time, Not the Thief

Photo by Srikanta H. U on Unsplash

As an entrepreneur or creative, you should be less worried about people stealing your ideas and more worried about following through on the execution of those ideas.

Derek Sivers has a great way of putting this. He refers to creative ideas as “multipliers of execution.”

Here’s a chart from his blog that illustrates the concept:


After poking fun of people who make a big deal about signing NDA’s for really simple ideas, Sivers observes:

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. The most brilliant idea, with no execution, is worth $20. The most brilliant idea takes great execution to be worth $20,000,000. That’s why I don’t want to hear people’s ideas. I’m not interested until I see their execution.

This applies to more than business, of course. If you want to write a book, record an album, solve a problem, build your portfolio,  or drive any creative project from concept to completion, you need more than good ideas. You need great or brilliant execution to make those ideas go in the right direction. A brilliant idea with weak execution gets you less than a so-so idea with so-so execution.

Here’s the paradoxical thing: many people fail to execute precisely because they think they have a brilliant idea.

“My idea is so good,” they think, “that someone will take it from me if I ever put it out there.”

To that concern, I say four things:

1) The phenomenon of two or more individuals making the same discovery independently of each other is a thing. Brilliant ideas are no exception (see the discovery of DNA). The longer you sit around waiting for the right time, the more opportunity other people will have to come up with and act on a different version of your idea. You’ve probably already experienced this before. Have you ever observed something in the marketplace that was making a lot of money or getting a lot of fanfare and you thought to yourself “Hey, I had that idea a few years ago”? If you or someone you know has had that experience, then you know the futility of thinking you can protect an idea by not acting on it.

2) The best way to protect your creatives ideas is to use them in a very public way. By using your ideas, you build a brand for coming up with those kinds of ideas. Famous stand-up comedians are often caught stealing jokes from lesser known comedians. Can you guess why they’re caught? It’s because those lesser known comedians are out there doing gigs, recording them, publishing the footage on YouTube, sharing their bits on instagram, etc. By working out loud and documenting their work, they make it more difficult to steal their work with impunity. The less these lesser know comedians do this, the more likely it is that a famous comedian can get away with stealing their idea.

When I first started writing, I shared quotes and excerpts from my blog posts on social media. My friends would constantly ask me “Is this your quote?” or “Did you write this? or “Are these your words?” Any writer in the world could have claimed authorship of my writings and no one would have believed me if I said “Hey, that’s my article.” But over time, I’ve built a reputation for writing blog posts about personal development. No one ever asks “Are those your words?” anymore. Instead people say “that sounds like a TK thing to say.” Moreover, if someone stole an article of mine, I could easily show the original date I published it.

I’m not saying the system is perfect and that it’s impossible to get your ideas stolen, but I am saying that you have a much better chance of convincing people that you came up with an idea if you establish a reputation for actually doing things with ideas.

3) Your idea will only become worth acting on after you act on it. Anyone who thinks it’s possible to come up with a perfect idea before acting on it misunderstands the nature of the creative process. Your number one asset for improving and refining your ideas is the feedback you get from reality after you make an attempt to do something with it. There are discoveries and insights that you’ll never achieve until you face your fears, confront your resistance, and take a leap of faith. Even if you think you have the perfect idea, the flow of energy you create by using that idea will make you want to alter things in a way you couldn’t have predicted. When you hide your ideas, you’re not protecting them. You’re stifling them.

4) You’re fooling yourself. If your idea is really worth stealing then it’s also worth executing. Why would someone steal your idea unless it’s worth acting on? And why would you not act on the idea if you genuinely believe it’s worth stealing? If you find yourself being precious with your ideas, then you’re not afraid of robbers. You’re afraid of resistance.

A creative idea is not some kind of deity that can swoop down from heaven and usher you to the promise land. When it comes to making ideas happen, you have to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Far more dreams are stolen by the time we squander than by the thieves who plunder.

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