The world doesn’t need my ideas

I went to a talk by Rory Stewart the other night. He was talking about GiveDirectly, the charity of which he is Director and passionate advocate. As you’d expect, he talked openly, critically and a little fruitily. There was one particular anecdote which stuck with me.

He was at a gathering of rich philanthropists, and someone was on stage. They said, in Rory’s best American accent, I’ve worked in the aid sector for 20 years, and I’ve finally realised - it’s not my money that I need to give, it’s my ideas!”

This feels cringey (someone living on less than $2 a day probably doesn’t care about the new idea of a rich white guy, just what works). But I don’t think it’s a million miles away from how I’ve often thought about the big problems of the world. I’d like the problem to be solved, I’d love it to be solved by my breakthrough idea. There’s pride in contributing to a field from my unique perspective, a rush from feeling that an idea is now out there that wouldn’t otherwise have been. I listen to podcasts from leading thinkers, read books from bright minds, and envy their wealth in the economy of ideas.

I should realise, though, just how many good ideas are already out there. I’m interested in improving the way that government works, and the idea space here is already so crowded - billions of minds have probably thought about this by now, over the course of human history. And yet government institutions remain messy and far from perfect, and so many good ideas never leave the page.

So what am I saying? First, in the business of improving government institutions (and, I would say, generally, in society at large), we’re constrained not by a lack of good ideas, but by a lack of good implementation. I should focus on becoming a good implementer, not another ideas merchant.

Second, I should consider who I put a pedestal. Perhaps find a few more implementers to admire and follow in the footsteps of. Doers, after all, often have the most impressive tales to tell.

Thank you, rich philanthropist, for triggering this chain of thought. I hope you stuck with your monetary donations. For my part, I will work on dealing in novel actions over novel thoughts, but I can’t rule out the occasional idea spilling out on page here. My ego has a lot to answer for.

June 2, 2024