Common Sense Is A Trap

When was the last time you paid for an idea? I know, I know. Who does that? The information wants to be free and most good ideas are already on the Internet or Wikipedia. A lot of these ideas are public knowledge. Humanism is an idea. Free choice is another idea. Constitutional monarchy is an idea. Individualism is an idea. Why would you ever need to pay for them?

The other thing is that when we enter into the technology startup ecochamber, all we ever hear is that ideas are worth nothing. An idea is only good if it’s followed by execution. “No less will do”, we are told. “Fair enough”, we reply.

Still, I would argue that despite most ideas being freely available and/or worthless, we continue to pay for them. This is not a metaphor. We take out our wallets and pay for ideas every day, except there are some ideas we are more likely to buy. Figuring this out could mean the difference between a multimillion and a multibillion dollar business.

When we buy ideas, we buy ideas we already believe in, know about or sense as self-evident to a large proportion of our peers.

Sometimes ideas are imposed on us by the circumstances. We are indoctrinated into our country’s choice of government system. We are indoctrinated into the social mores and values. It’s not that we always pay, but when we do we most often pay for the things we already believe.

For instance, do you believe that reading a certain kind of book can change your life, or more specifically, change the way you behave? Do you believe that software is best produced over a long sequence of short iterations instead of a short sequence of long iterations? Do you believe that good design gets out of the way and is intuitive?

If you do all of the above, you own a few self-help books, you’ve been to an agile training seminar, and you own a Mac. Think of it as the tax you pay for believing those things. I only say this half-jokingly, by the way.

The dark side of this is that the worst scam in my book is the scam where my convictions are marketed back to me as revelations. That’s why I absolutely abhor Agile consultants and self-help gurus. I, for one, believe that they are the biggest and the smartest hacks out there. The ideas they peddle tend to perpetuate themselves because of an intrinsic need for a better life and a better piece of software.

The bright side of this is that attaching your product to a powerful idea or conviction is just plain smart. Take Apple. Better take two. I mean simple is beautiful, efficient, and cool. Who would ever argue with that? Who would ever challenge the need to be more efficient? Don’t we all deserve to be more efficient?

How then is an Apple product different from a self-help book? Both are based on needs and ideas that are largely unchallenged, low-friction, common sense things. Both products support an idea shared by a large segment of the population. Both make us willingly part with some portion of our paychecks. And yet, one (you can guess which one) is kind of ‘yucky and sleazy’ and the other is kind of ‘cool’. Why?

In the end, I suppose the difference is in what happens after you part with your money. It is the experience of ownership that sets a dust-collecting, self-help book and an Apple computer apart. In the end, common sense is a trap only as long as our expectations for subscribing to an idea diverge with the actual experience of buying into it. I think some people call this quality.


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