It’s 2011 and I’m at the Dublin International Film Festival where I see Irish crime fiction writer John Connolly sitting two seats away from me.
Given the chance, I like to pick a creative person’s brain to find out what golden nuggets of wisdom I just might learn from them.
So I introduced myself as a fellow journalist (Connolly had worked at The Irish Times) and soon enough we got onto the subject of ideas and what makes a good one.
Journalists usually have a pretty sound idea of what makes a good story.
So I asked him: “But what if your idea’s just bad in the first place?”
And he said something I’ll never forget: “There are no bad ideas, just poor execution.”
Ten million copies later, he should know.
But his quote, I hope, also illustrates the symbiotic relationship between stories and ideas. That’s because they’ve both got to do with problem solving.
Stories are usually about people with problems. In the world of film, for example, Luke is trying to defeat the Evil Empire, ET is attempting to phone home… and the Muppets will do whatever it takes to save Christmas.
So the survival, or existence, of someone or something is always at stake. And these are problems all these people need to solve… by having a good idea of how to fix them.
Long, long ago, when the first of our forebears was eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, you can be pretty certain the rest of the tribe immediately learned to avoid big cats.
But given their main problem was survival – as it is for all of us – then you can also bet that at least one of them had the brainwave to go hunting when their prey was resting.
Problem. Idea. Solution. It’s a pattern that endlessly repeats itself over time.
For instance, it’s commonly held that fish and chips were invented by the British. But in this case a ‘one and one’ does not, in fact, equal two.
Without fried fish, this combo just wouldn’t be the same. And it turns out this part of the epicurean equation was invented by Jews fleeing religious persecution in 15th century Portugal.
Many of those Sephardic Jews, who relocated to England, took with them culinary treasures, one of which was Peshkado frito, commonly known as cod or haddock fried in flour.
It had to be fried on the Friday night in preparation for the Sabbath as cooking was banned on Saturday under the Mosaic laws.
It’s thought the batter preserved the fish so that it could be eaten cold the next day without compromising the flavour. Problem. Idea. Solution.
In another context, 40 years ago, American management consultant Marilyn Loden was taking part in a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in the workplace.
She noticed that the female panelists focused on how women behaved in a self-deprecating way and allegedly carried a poor self-image.
She recalls that it was a struggle for her to sit quietly as these criticisms were being aired.
While she agreed that it was hard for women to progress beyond middle management level, she said there were invisible barriers to their advancement that had everything to do with culture, and nothing to do with personal issues.
So she coined a phrase for this on the spot, calling it an “invisible glass ceiling”. And she said this was the main reason there weren’t more female CEOs.
That idea, partly sparked from the story of her own experience on that panel, has proven to be one of the most talked about ever since.
And finally, going back to films, some can ignite ideas that literally make the world a better and safer place for all of us.
In Stanley Kubrick’s satire Dr Strangelove, a mad general sparks a path to nuclear holocaust that politicians and other generals must try to stop.
In a key scene, one character uses a payphone to call the Pentagon to provide them with access codes, but doesn’t have enough change. He fails to contact them… resulting in nuclear annihilation.
That scene was later screened for the US Congress who collectively thought it raised real worries about communication blocks during a crisis.
There and then they decided that access codes to nuclear weapons should not be limited to just one federal official.
So if you’re looking for that next big idea, find a problem to solve first.
(This post was my 2018 submission for entry to Congregation in Cong, Co. Mayo, a three-day festival designed to foster links between attendees from very diverse backgrounds and create deep discussion and dialogue. https://congregation.ie/