The difference between idea and thought (Post #1)


The Gist:

  • Thought and Idea are different things.
  • We encourage both in the classroom.
  • I’m not sure which I privilege more.
  • I’m not sure which I should.

(Note: I started thinking more than I planned. The last three points will have to be in my next post.)

The Whole Story:

Disclaimer: My line of thinking here is protean. Ideally, I’d play with it as a comment somewhere first. As I haven’t run into such a post yet, I’m diving in.

Claim the First: Thought and Idea are different concepts

It’s highly likely that everyone is on board with this already, but I hadn’t been until recently. Asking me to think about something and asking me to come up with an idea are different requests. To me, thinking can include, but isn’t limited to, walking and making connections between the intellectual paths of others. Having an idea, though, is making something new, sometimes utilizing those intellectual paths, sometimes operating apart from them. Social bookmarking is an idea. Figuring out how to create it, utilize it, improve it are all thoughts.

Claim the Second: Thought usually precedes idea

Continuing the social bookmarking example, whatever the first iteration of social bookmarking, its creator likely went through a thought process driven by a problem. The thought process probably noted the insufficiencies inherent in the present situation as well as the desired features beyond those insufficiencies. With thinking, the process can end there. It can end at any step of the game: “Oh, there’s a problem.” “Oh, here’s why this problem exists.” “Oh, here’s what I’d like out of a solution to that problem.” “Oh, here’s what it would take to make that solution real.” “Oh, here’s that solution.” That last part is the idea, arrived at through thought.

Claim the Third: Thought mustn’t always precede idea

More than once, I’ve heard people complain Wave doesn’t solve a problem. They don’t know why they need it because it doesn’t fill an obvious need. It’s an idea that precedes thought. Now, I’m sure Wave’s developers see the need, I’m sure they thought it out. The difference between social networking and Wave exists in the paths of thinking. Many people had identified the problem, the causes and what they’d like to see in a solution leading up to the advent of social bookmarking. Thus, when the idea arrived, it was embraced more readily than has been the case with Wave. Wave was an idea whose time hadn’t yet come.

Claim the Fourth: Ideas from minority thoughts face a greater chance of rejection

The clamor for Wave invitations was as frenetic as the clamor for gmail invitations or the race to blogging, or the race to myspace (remember that?), or the race to space. We’d agreed we wanted to get there because it was a new idea with the force of those we knew behind it. Then, we got to Wave. Then we were there and looking around. Then we started complaining. We didn’t know why we were there. By and large, we still don’t. We’ve started leaving.

Claim the Fifth: The rejection of minority thoughts evidences hypocrisy

A common cry of keynotes and conference sessions and blog posts and podcasts is that we should not only allow, but encourage our students to play. Sometimes we mean this in a social way. Sometimes we mean this in an intellectual way. Either way, the implication is that we are asking our students to play for the inherent value of discovery within play. They will uncover new ideas. Play is thought without repercussions or expectations. When my younger brother dumps out his LEGOs and begins building, that’s play. When he dumps out his LEGOs and begins building based off of the diagram included with his latest set, that is not play. Minority thoughts give us ideas without diagrams and ask us to play. Though we encourage this in our students and claim to be dedicated to it in our own practices, if we can’t see the endgame or the relevance we frequently decide not to play.

This post serves as further evidence. In writing it, I’m asking if you want to play with ideas. In reading it, you’re looking for your diagram, looking to see if my idea lines up with your thinking.  If you’ve made it this far, you likely want to play. If you haven’t, you’re probably not a player. Playing (or commenting) means you either want to see what we can make or that you see your thinking in these words and want to utilize the idea.

5 thoughts on “The difference between idea and thought (Post #1)

  1. Thought does always precede the idea, even if it's not conscious, sustained, targeted thought. Google Wave is meant to solve a problem. The fact that many people (most people?) don't agree that the problem IS a problem is reflected in the reaction to the tool. But the idea for Wave came out of a problem that the Google designers identified. There's still room for inspiration — that Eureka moment when new ideas are born. But even if we're not spending hours/days/years trying to find a solution to a problem, those moments of inspiration are invariable preceded by some recognition of a problem that needs to be solved.The minority faces the uphill struggle of inertia. People are interested in Wave or Buzz because they're already using Google products. Not only is there already a track record of successful Google products, but it's easy — perhaps too easy — to add another item to the Google toolbox. That's not the same as some new startup that may have found the perfect solution to a fundamental problem, but can't get people to look at it.Looking forward to the last three points in the gist.

    • I think this line of thinking presupposes an idea must have a purpose. Waveis being rejected because we haven't followed the same thinking as thegoogle designers. It's an idea that came to us without our thinking. It'sasking us to play. It's a kind of, “Here, we made this. What can you do withit.”Also, I know I'm getting semantic (and I hate it when I read semanticarguments), but I'd argue the unconscious, unsustained, untargeted stuff inour brain isn't what we talk about when we talk about thinking. The closestI can come to it is pondering or maybe daydreaming.For the purposes of this line of thinking, I'm talking about thinking in thesense of, “I want you all to think about X.” Thanks for drawing that out.I get what you're saying about inertia. Aren't there many cases of minoritythoughts gaining traction and momentum? I agree with the idea of Googlecounting on the success of its other products leading to the use of its newproducts. Brand loyalty is strong. Still, we're used to choices. If we don'tsee the fit in Wave or Buzz, we'll walk away from them. (And I realize theinherent consumer politics invoked in bringing up Wave, but it was whatstarted me playing with this.) I wonder, though, if the choices make usdull. If an idea asks us to think differently, have we started turning awaybecause we can easily find ideas that make it easier to stay comfortable? Isthat thinking or tradition?In the case of the example of a startup, I think this might be an example ofthinking up a perfect solution to a problem or set of problems we haven'tthought of. Is choice killing our creativity?

  2. I “think” that I often abandon play or thoughts only to revist when I have developed my thoughts further. I need to mull things over, digest, and then re-engage. I don't always get the endgame at first, or need to create my own edgame. Do we allow that tme for re-engaging with our students or are we just plowing through? Maybe this is what you were saying, I have to think about it more, revisit your thoughts.

  3. Google Wave was the developers’ idea following on their thought. The user had to think in response to these developers’ idea. I would argue that thinking came first to the users, too… because the idea of Wave isn’t THEIR idea, though it gave them something to puzzle over and respond to. Perhaps the users’ idea, which followed, was that they didn’t see a purpose for it yet, or maybe in some cases it was an idea about how it might fit into their own lives, or a novel use for it that went beyond what the developers thought about. I agree that thought may not have to precede ideas – or at least, it’s hard/impossible to prove that thought comes before idea in EVERY case, so I’ll go with it – but I don’t think your example demonstrates this very well.

    • What’s interesting, is you point to two separate actions (to my mind). The first is the thought->idea movement with the Wave developers. The second (and the one I was working to highlight) was the idea->thought movement on the part of users. They were presented with the idea of Wave and then had to think of how to use it.
      I’m resistant to point to where ownership of an idea is situated. The product Wave was that of the developers. I’m not sure the successive iterations of Wave’s use by customers weren’t at least joint ownership of the idea. I’d also say I envision users being presented with the idea of wave, thinking of how to use it, and then creating the idea/use they’d thought of. In this case, it’s almost cyclical.
      As I said in the introduction, the ideas of the post were protean.
      Thanks for asking me to re-examine my thinking and flesh it out a bit more.

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