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<   No. 1754   2007-11-15   >

Comic #1754

1 {scene: Head Death's desk}
1 Head Death: NOW WHAT WAS THIS FIGHT ABOUT?
1 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: HE STARTED IT!
1 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: NO, 'E DID!
2 Head Death: I DON'T CARE WHO STARTED IT. FIREBALLS, YOU'RE DEMOTED TO BEING STARED AT ANGRILY BY A GIANT FROG.
2 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: NOOO!!
3 Head Death: HATMAKING CHEMICALS, YOUR PUNISHMENT IS DOUBLE DUTY, CLEANING UP THE FIREBALL SCRAPS LEFT BEHIND.
3 Death of Inhaling Hatmaking Chemicals: NOOO!!
4 Head Death: AND SINCE THIS IS SUCH A SEVERE TRANSGRESSION, I'M MAKING THIS RETROACTIVE...
5 Head Death: STARTING FROM THE PREVIOUS FIREBALL VICTIM.
5 Jamie: But... that's me!
6 Head Death: AND YOU TWO, I'M SENDING BACK. I CAN'T BE BOTHERED SORTING THIS OUT NOW.
7 {scene change: The Mythbusters studio}
7 Jamie: So Adam, the boggy Kalashnikov?
7 Adam: Well, it was still lethal. I'm calling it plausible.
8 {scene change: Head Death's desk. Head Death sits alone, talking on the phone.}
8 Head Death: Go find Hit With A Sword By Your Own Party Member In A Tragic Case Of Mistaken Identity. Tell him he's fired. No reason; I'm just that angry.

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I don't have much to say specifically about today's comic, but I do have something to say today.

I come up with ideas.

Lots of ideas. Lots of bad ideas. A few good ones. And some that are pretty bad as they stand, but which have the germ of something much better inside.

I was recently (as in today, as I write this annotation, which is about a month ago by the time this comic appears) lamenting the fact that I haven't been invited to a wedding for going on 2 years, and that I don't know anybody for whom marriage is a reasonable possibility in the near future. One of the things I really enjoy about weddings is the opportunity for photography. I have a lovely new camera and some pretty good lenses, and would like to give them a workout at a wedding some time.

The idea struck me that I could get up on a Saturday morning, dress in a suit and tie, head out to a nearby church, and just hang around waiting. Eventually a groom and his retinue would show up - they usually arrive pretty early, well before most of the invited guests. I could approach the lucky fellow and make an offer:

Hi, I'm an amateur photographer who lives nearby; here's my card with my contact details. I'm trying to improve my wedding photography, so I was wondering if you'd mind if I just hung out and took photos during your wedding. I'll be discreet, I won't get in the way of anyone, I won't be using a flash, and I'm dressed like a guest so your official photographer won't get ruffled feathers. I won't follow anyone away from the church - I don't want to crash your reception! And I'll send you a free CD with a copy of all the photos I take, no strings attached.
Now, depending on your own reaction, you're either thinking this is actually a very cool idea, or that there's no way you'd trust some stranger making a request like this. This, as it stands, is in fact a moderately bad idea. It has the potential to make people paranoid on their wedding day, which is not a good thing.

But the thing with me is that this doesn't stop me sharing the idea with people. I posted this idea to my blog, asking people what their reaction would be - while pointing out that I wasn't seriously considering trying it out; I was just sort of thinking out loud.

A few people posted comments saying it sounded cool and they'd take up such an offer, but many pointed out the weirdness aspect, and one guy wondered if I might be an ex-boyfriend of his bride-to-be doing some crazy stalking thing. About what I expected.

But one person suggested an alternative: Approach the pastor of the church with some business cards and the same story, and ask if he would share the idea with couples planning to be married at the church. This way each couple would have time to consider the offer and make a joint decision, it would be much less intimidating, and (very important) there'd be no strange surprise on their wedding day.

Suddenly my somewhat dodgy idea has been turned into something that is actually a pretty good idea!

My point here is not about weddings or photography, but about the process of creating good ideas. The best way to create good ideas is not to sit around by yourself trying to think of good ideas. Rather, it's to think up mediocre or even downright bad ideas, and to share them with other people. Collective human ingenuity is much more powerful than any individual. Given a seed of an idea, someone else can adapt it, apply a different perspective, or use it to spark something else entirely that they never would have thought of by themselves.

The corollary of this is that it's a good thing to share your bad ideas. We all come up with crazy sounding stuff sometimes. Many of us never share it with anyone, because we're afraid of sounding stupid, or being ridiculed. But sharing your bad ideas liberates them; it puts them out there into the collective idea-space, where they can attract the attention of someone who might just be able to give it the right twist to turn it into something good.

A more concrete example can be found on my own website. A while ago I had an idea for another comic. I thought it would be cool, but I mostly dismissed doing it as it would take a significant amount of time - a commodity I have in short supply. But rather than ditch it, I mentioned the idea to some friends of mine. They loved it, and suggested sharing the workload of writing and constructing the comics amongst all of us. Thus was born Darths & Droids.

I want to generalise this a little bit now. The best way I can think of to generalise it is to quote the title of a song by "Weird Al" Yankovic:

Dare to be Stupid.
The lyrics of the song are unimportant (though funny). The principle is that you should not be afraid of sounding stupid. If you have an idea or a suggestion for something, let people know about it. It may merely be mildly amusing in a "how stupid" way, sure, but it may also be the catalyst for something incredibly cool. If you don't risk sounding stupid, you never get the cool.

There's another context in which this general principle of "daring to be stupid" applies.

Have you ever been in a school classroom, or a university lecture theatre, or wherever you are supposed to be learning things, and either:

  1. You thought the teacher made some sort of mistake, and wonder if anyone else has noticed, or if anyone would point it out? - or
  2. Suddenly there's some point the teacher is trying to make that you don't understand, and you sit there confused, hoping someone will ask for clarification?
And then, lo, a fellow student puts a hand up and asks the question. "Sorry, have you made a mistake there?" Or "Sorry, I didn't understand that last point - can you go over it again?" And the teacher realises that there is indeed a mistake, or that something wasn't explained properly, and fixes it.

That student is daring to be stupid. By calling attention to himself, he runs the risk that his fellow students will think him an idiot. But you know what? That student is the smartest student in the class. Because he doesn't want to be left behind, he doesn't want to misunderstand something, and he wants to know if that mistake is a mistake in the teacher's writing or in his understanding. That student, by daring to be stupid, assures that he doesn't end up actually stupid.

I went through school and university several years ago. I graduated fairly successfully and I now have a doctorate in physics and a good job doing scientific research that interests me. One of the most important things I learnt in my education was to dare to be stupid. I used to be fairly unassuming as a child, and didn't want to draw attention to myself. I didn't want the other kids to think I was being stupid by asking questions in class.

But I was curious enough and eager enough to learn to start asking questions when I didn't understand something. That kid who always points out when the teacher makes a mistake on the board? That was me. The one who stops the teacher and asks for a better explanation when most of the class have just been bamboozled by something that was difficult to follow? That was me. The other kids would just sit there.

In university it wasn't always me - there were other students who raised their hands and interrupted the lecturer. And helped both themselves and everyone else in the class by doing so. Several of the people who ended up doing the same difficult university courses I did had got there by daring to be stupid.

I've learnt many lessons in life. Today, this one was reinforced in me by my now habitual tendency to share my bad ideas. It led to a much better idea. And now I have another good idea (that's two good ideas from the one bad idea I had this morning): to share it with all of you. So I've co-opted this comic's annotation to bring you this story. The moral? I'm sure you know it by now.

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Last Modified: Thursday, 15 November 2007; 02:11:02 PST.
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