Creative Ideas Fail 99% of the Time

  • May 7, 2015
  • INK Team

There are a lot of misconceptions about Thomas Edison and the light bulb.

First of all, he wasn’t the original inventor of the light bulb; a guy named Humphry Davy made the first electric light 78 years before Edison began manufacturing bulbs for the Edison Electric Light Company. He also wasn’t the only person tinkering around in a lab trying to create a light bulb that could be mass-produced. There were at least 20 other inventors who successfully developed incandescent lamps.

So why is Edison revered as the guy who invented the light bulb? After 1,000 iterations, Edison came up with the best idea.

Edison’s famous quote, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” is the crux of 99U, an annual conference for creative professionals held in New York. INK kindly sent me to the conference to soak up the knowledge of creative leaders experimenting with new ways of doing work. Nearly every speaker shared their fear of rejection and stories of failure before achieving greatness, leading me to these three painful truths that every creative must face in order to succeed:

Being successful means you get rejected 9 out of 10 times.

Fred Seibert, the first creative director of MTV, first investor in Tumblr and founder of mega-cartoon studio Frederator Networks, invited 99U attendees to a pre-conference studio session where we heard lessons learned from his career. He shared one story in particular about a time when he and a colleague collaborated with the legendary Dick Clark on a television project earlier in his career. Seibert, interested in finding out more about Clark’s pitching success rate, asked Clark how often his television pitches were shot down. “9 out of 10 times,” Clark said.

If Dick Clark, with his experience and prestige, was rejected 9 out of 10 times, then creative professionals, you’d better bet most of your ideas will get rejected during the creative process. Edison, too, experienced incredible failure. He tried 1,000 different ways to create the light bulb before finding the right design. When was the last time you went through 1,000 iterations of one creative idea?

Rejection doesn’t equal failure. It equals opportunities to develop better ideas.

Just because other people are doing it, doesn’t mean you can’t do it better.

If rejection isn’t enough of a crippling fear, another idea that feeds the failure beast is competition. It’s scary – and totally normal – to think that everything has been done before and that you have nothing innovative to add to the world.

The great thing is, you can take anything in the world and make it better. Case in point: drones.

Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson spent an afternoon with his children putting together a Lego robotics kit only to find that the robot rolled forward and backward. After this failed attempt at making robotics cool and fun for this children, Anderson decided to step it up a notch. Using a basic robotics kit and a flying airplane, Anderson and his children created a drone. Fast forward several years, Chris Anderson founded 3D Robotics, the most advanced drone company in the world.

Sure, Anderson wasn’t the first person to develop drones. But he’s built an entire company around building the most advanced drones in the world, competitors notwithstanding.

Success is based on how well an idea is executed, not on originality of the idea.

There’s no such thing as an “aha!” moment.

Internal struggles can also hinder creative movement forward. Many creatives have a romantic version of what it means to make something great. Imagine Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb. He’s hunched over, tinkering with a bulb when suddenly, aha! The light turns on! Edison’s reality likely looked a little different than that.

It actually took Edison two years to research, design and test more than 1,000 prototypes. On the final prototype, he tested the bulb for 13 hours, letting the filament burn to see how long it would last. Hardly an aha moment, but rather a series of tests, adjustments, and a boatload of patience.

Illustrator and writer Christoph Neimann, whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, on the cover of Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times Magazine, believes that great work happens with a little luck, but is impossible without practice. Usually the grueling process of creating is when the greatest work appears.

So there you have it. The ugly truth behind the pipedream of the creative process. Rejection, competition and hours of perfecting are simply part of the process. Now get cracking! It’s going to take at least 1,000 ideas to get one right.

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