Idea rat

In our house, Jak is the “Idea Rat” — it’s a long-running joke, born of part affection and part exasperation. (Read the Dilbert strip at that link if you’re not familiar with the phrase.)

Every so often he’ll make some suggestion and I’ll just stare at him, trying to figure out how in the world he expects that to work, until finally I ask — and he admits that well, he hasn’t figured the implementation part out yet. Hence: Idea Rat.

For longer than I can remember, I’ve been working under the premise that impractical ideas are worthless. They’re distracting and a waste of time. I’m not sure where I picked up that belief, but it’s something I’ve never questioned.

See, I don’t think of myself as an idea person, but … secretly, I am. I just squelch them as soon as they bubble up. When I think of something, I immediately evaluate it for practicality, and if it fails (as it does, 99.9999% of the time) then I clear it from memory. I have hundreds of ideas every day that don’t make it past the first thirty seconds.

For example: it occurred to me yesterday that it would be possible to make some really cool salt-and-pepper shakers in the form of chess pieces. Carved wood (light and dark), or marble (black and white), king and queen, or maybe bishop as a grinder and rook for salt … or even an entire chess set to hold spices, big pieces for the common ones and pawns for the rare …

Then the automatic test kicks in: can I do this? Don’t know any wood or stone carvers. Production issues would be major. Don’t have any connections to — or more than a passing interest in — chess enthusiast communities or salt-and-pepper collectors. No insights into marketing. And poof — out she goes, as if the thought had never happened. (I only even remember this a day later because I was mulling over the subject of this post at the time, and I had a mental flag to hold on to the next idea I had, for example purposes.)

I think I developed this system in order to keep from being overwhelmed by the nine billion things I’d otherwise want to do. It’s that Renaissance thing, that fox thing … my interests are so diverse that I’m afraid if I don’t focus focus focus I’ll never get anywhere. And this is why I often find Jak’s ideas so exasperating: because his comparatively weak filters are adding more noise when I’m desperately seeking signal.

One of the books-for-foxes I’ve read this month takes the tack that even the most impractical ideas are little gems to be enjoyed, appreciated, and recorded da Vinci notebook-style for the future entertainment of others. (‘Wow, look at all this crazy stuff Grandma thought up.’) Not that one should go off trying to implement every passing thought, but at least take time to celebrate and even share the idea.

Which is exactly what I never let Jak do. I come down on him like the MamaCat Paw Of Doom if he so much as opens his mouth. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if—’ ‘Maybe I could—’ and my filter kicks into overdrive. ‘No, that would never work, because A, B, C, D, …’

Even with this newfound perspective, I don’t see myself keeping an idea journal or anything. (It conflicts with my perfectionist issues.) But I can already see the difference in how I react to Jak’s dreaming. I can short-circuit the judgment cycle now, and leave the idea alive for him instead of killing it the instant it sticks its nose out.

And if he wants the practical-filter response — because the voice of reason is occasionally useful — I can do that too.


  1. 19 Oct 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Heh. Actually, Rachael and I have been out of touch for years now. I don’t have any idea …

  2. 19 Oct 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Plus, isn’t Rachael’s boyfriend a stonecarver? See? This could totally happen.

  3. 19 Oct 2009 at 4:16 pm

    I get so few ideas worthy of the terminology that I tend to want to plow ahead on them even if I can’t keep up the planning or effort or logistics for very long.

    Which reminds me, I need to crank out another webcomic tonight…

  4. 19 Oct 2009 at 8:42 pm

    I saw these facebook links and thought for fleeting seconds that you had actually procured a rat and fox.

  5. 8 Dec 2009 at 7:26 pm

    I stumbled on to your site when I googled “idea rat” remembering the Dilbert strip. (+14 years old wow! glad for the linky)

    I’d go on a rant about idea rats, but, meh.

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