The Worth of Ideas

10:56 PM

I once heard a quote along the lines of, "An idea--just an idea--is worthless if you don't do something with it, if it doesn't translate to action." A more famous variant comes from Thomas Edison's "The value of an idea lies in the using of it."

What do you think? Is the sheer idea, independent of direct action, worthless?

In the moment, the statement didn't bother me that much, but it did a great deal upon my future reflection. I'm reminded of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick's famous "Just Words" speech during his gubernatorial campaign, in which he said in response to his opponent, "Her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is all I have to offer is words," he said. "Just words. 
We holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words. Just words. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Just words. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words. 'I have a dream’ — just words."


Deval Patrick's powerful response, garnering tremendous applause, highlighted the power of words; I think it's also time we highlight the power of ideas. Sure, there's a lot already being done; after all, TED.com is dedicated to "ideas worth spreading" and they are clearly widely respected, with ever increasing reach. 


Yet still, we oftentimes overlook the inherent value of ideas. Isn't everything we hold dear (or not) an idea, somehow? Isn't love an idea, if we isolate it from merely the biological feeling; isn't hate an idea, too? In some sense the bonds of family are ideas--the idea, the knowledge somehow that we love and are loved unconditionally is one of the most comforting things there is, yet do we necessarily always translate that into action? (Come on, you know you haven't called up your grandparents.) 


I may be biased because I'm a huge TED fan and organize a TEDx conference here in Redmond (dedicated to the "ideas worth spreading" of youth), but I think there's also further objective evidence to support the power of ideas. In our wars overseas in recent memory, we've focused (at least out loud) on "winning hearts and minds" as much as fists.


Overlooking the value of ideas in their organic sense discourages intellectualism, and moreover, the joy of simply thinking. My best conversations haven't actually been the ones about the urgent problems or solutions right in front of us (much as I love politics) or the actions to be crossed off of to-do lists. Rather, they've more often than not been about issues that transcend action (or at least, actions by me alone). War and peace and love and hate, good and evil and humanity and nature, even, sometimes, the universe--problems I can never solve, places I can never go, us crazy people whom I sometimes can't understand. 


We all have philosophers within. To dispute the value of ideas, or set up an inappropriate comparison of superiority/inferiority between action and ideas, is to be nearsighted. It denies the beauty of the world that's larger than us. I find it simultaneously strange and humbling to realize what thin threads we are on the tapestry of history, how shallow our footprints on the sands of time can be. I believe surely in leaving those footprints and in the value of action. I mean, one of my favorite quotes is Horace Mann's rousing "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity." But I also believe keenly that ideas have value all by themselves; for where will we achieve those victories, if not first within our minds? 

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6 comments

  1. Anonymous11:03 AM

    I believe ideas come to life when they are discussed, contemplated and shared. We cling to our ideas either for fear of them being stolen or realized by others, or because we are afraid that others will think they are silly or impossible to achieve. You need to be courageous enough to believe in your ideas and then put them out there. Not all of us are capable of taking an idea from birth to maturity. Better to share your idea and give it a chance at life, then let it die in your head.You never know when you have the spark that will ignite a great fire in the world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous11:04 AM

    I believe ideas come to life when they are discussed, contemplated and shared. We cling to our ideas either for fear of them being stolen or realized by others, or because we are afraid that others will think they are silly or impossible to achieve. You need to be courageous enough to believe in your ideas and then put them out there. Not all of us are capable of taking an idea from birth to maturity. Better to share your idea and give it a chance at life, then let it die in your head.You never know when you have the spark that will ignite a great fire in the world.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow! You are a great blogger!
    I saw a video of you conferencing about'What adults can learn to kids'
    Is that your conferencing building was IBM building?

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  4. Hello, Ms. Svitak?!
    This is a 11year old student from The Republic of Korea.
    I watched your TED presentation at my GLPS(Global Leadership Program for Students)camp writing class. I really do agree with your view to this world that adults need to learn something from kids. I also find it so surprising that you were in TED talks in the age of 12. Your speech was so inspiring to watch as a child's point of view. Thank you for such good presentation and writings in your blog. I would be glad to see more of your wonderful works!!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hello, Ms. Svitak?!
    This is a 11year old student from The Republic of Korea.
    I watched your TED presentation at my GLPS(Global Leadership Program for Students)camp writing class. I really do agree with your view to this world that adults need to learn something from kids. I also find it so surprising that you were in TED talks in the age of 12. Your speech was so inspiring to watch as a child's point of view. Thank you for such good presentation and writings in your blog. I would be glad to see more of your wonderful works!!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Well,I respect you, Adora. IN fact, I was able to know who you are by watching your TED video.
    But do you really think adults can learn something from kids? I mean, adults can just say
    "I'm older than you, I have more experiences than you. How rude you are that you say like that to me?"
    I have many experiences like that. Even if I can logically rebut their ideas, I don't. Just- I wanted to mention you.

    ReplyDelete