How can I be less emotionally invested in my technical ideas?
August 19, 2013 4:55 AM   Subscribe

Why do I get so emotionally invested in "eureka" ideas that them having done before leads to a crash-and-burn for me? How do I avoid this?

I'm going to phrase this question in the context of my world but I'm sure others will identify whatever their field.

I work in research, specifically in computer systems engineering. Often, I'll have what I consider an idea that can change things/improve things significantly. Doing a ltierature review on the idea will inevitably lead me to realise it's been done (and was published in a top tier conference)!

This is the point at which other researchers would raise an eyebrow and walk away. For me it feels like a breakup or that the idea was "stolen" from me. I get really emotionally attached to these niche ideas. I've noticed the reaction is much stronger if the work was published recently (in the last 5 years), if the idea has a real impact, if it was published in a really good conference or if it's one of those "trick" ideas which is an observation made into a tangible improvement. I've thought long and hard about why I get so invested and the only thing that comes to mind is the loss of a potentially awesome contribution (which I suppose reduces to ego). It inevitably ends up with me beating myself up for never having an "original" idea.

I know this will continue to happen through my life I just need a way to deal with it better and distance myself.
I've talked to my colleagues about this but the reactions I've got lead me to believe they don't suffer similar issues. I'm looking for anything that helps others to cope with this sort of scenario.
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you keep coming up with things that were published in the last five years, eventually you'll come up with something genuinely new. Your brain clearly works the right way.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:00 AM on August 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

So, as opposed to yours, my field has been around 2500 years. My principal research area has about 300 years of accumulated commentary. However, there are a lot fewer people doing research in my field, than in yours (a lot fewer). In other words, I feel you pain. It happens to me, too.

I learned in grad school to not, ever!, consider a new idea to be ground-breaking until after I did the lit review. If I have a good idea, I write it down (and say to myself "i wonder who wrote about this first", i.e. I assume it's not new) then I go do a search on the relevant professional database. If, after reading the dozen or so articles that seem related, it turns out to be as yet uncovered, that's when I let myself start to get excited. If it's been covered, then I console myself that (1) I am thinking in the right way (i.e. my ideas are good enough to merit publication. It's actually a nice thrill to know that I had the same idea as a giant in my field.) and (2) the research invariably makes me more knowledgeable about the subject. So, at worst, I'm better at my research.
posted by oddman at 5:11 AM on August 19, 2013 [12 favorites]

I learned in grad school to not, ever!, consider a new idea to be ground-breaking until after I did the lit review

This took my idea and what I was going to say!

On a similar note, get into the habit of developing ideas during and after a literature review on a topic, not before. That way you become immersed in the field, become aware of what the "open issues" are in that area, and thus will be better placed to come up with new ideas that are genuinely new. And even then, if someone came up with a similar idea, it will be in another field, and your idea becomes, "applying idea X to a place where is wasn't applied before" which is still worthwhile.
posted by deanc at 5:19 AM on August 19, 2013

Read more.

Also remember that theory is not implementation or utililization. Someone having an idea before you doesn't mean they have thought of all the possible implementations or applications. There are always unique things you can do around the edges of already existing ideas. There are some great scientists who make their daily bread by shuttling ideas across domain boundaries.
posted by srboisvert at 5:35 AM on August 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

If you have new ideas, almost all will flame out. Developing a thick skin is a big part of innovation. Edison tested thousands of light bulb designs, all of which were failures until he came up with the one that worked. As he said, it's 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

Lord Kelvin said ""One word characterized the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is FAILURE." Science is about trying, failing and then trying something else. You eventually come up with the right answer, but that's one success after thousands of failures.

That's why being an innovator is so difficult. Few people can stand continuous failure and still keep at it.
posted by KRS at 5:45 AM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you feel angry when it happens? It sounds like ego. It could be hiding the real feeling, which is probably something like disappointment. So maybe learn to sincerely feel the "aww shucks!" of disappointment.

Also maybe you're getting attached to making a name for yourself instead of the pure excitement of the research itself. This would also explain why you react sooo negatively.

I come up with lots of crazy ideas too. Then I google them; sometimes they exist, sometimes they don't. When they do exist... well, 8 billion monkeys at 8 billion type writers.....

Personally I've found liberation in realizing just how much like everyone else I am. It helps me feel less lonely, and less like I have something to prove. Then I'm free to really create.

And remember that TRUE innovation is rare; most research and "innovation" is just a natural evolution of something that already exists.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2013

Just imagine how upset you would feel if you invested a considerable amount of time into publishing something about the idea and only then discovered it wasn't original? Since most ideas will not pan out, you are experiencing the most merciful form of having your bubble burst -- before you have invested yourself in it.

It sounds like your angle is directed at academic production, but if you have any interest in developing an idea into a product or service for commercial use, it is helpful to keep in mind that originality is somewhat over rated. Many times a subtle change in a product/service can be viable in the market.
posted by dgran at 10:33 AM on August 19, 2013

You don't say enough about your specialty/sub-area for me to evaluate this, but in my experience in what's likely a similar area, 99% of the time that it seems like someone else already thought of something, what actually happened is that they wrote down the idea (a patent) but didn't follow through, or wrote down a very general handwavy description of something, of which they actually made perhaps 10% of the thing claimed.

So the trick is to not care as much that someone else did something, because they probably didn't, or did it differently, or did it poorly, and if you work on the same problem and stick with it, you're going to get to a branch or a decision where you go in a different direction, and that's where you'll find the novel thing.
posted by zippy at 10:37 AM on August 19, 2013

To echo what zippy notes: Ideas are easy. It is the implementation that is the catch.

The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player, it was just a much better implementation than anything that already existed.

So, don't despair! Instead, figure out what they missed.
posted by chiefthe at 11:22 AM on August 19, 2013

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