Three Reasons Why Ideas Matter

Ideas are the source of all things.

Plato

There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.

Victor Hugo

Adults are always asking little kids what they want to be when they grow up because they’re looking for ideas

Paula Poundstone

Since the Brock Prize is about “big ideas that make a big difference,” questions sometimes arise such as, “Why are you so focused on ideas?” or, “What’s the big deal about big ideas?” These are fair questions. Below I address three reasons why ideas matter.

Ideas Rule the World

Plato is credited with the adage, “Ideas rule the world.” I think he was correct. I recently listened to economist and Harvard President Emeritus, Lawrence Sanders, make a fascinating case that history is not shaped by monarchs or military might, bur rather by ideas and the spread of knowledge. For example, very few remember who ruled the British Empire when Chaucer or Shakespeare scripted or when Charles Babbage conceived the idea of the computer. Few recall the names of the US Presidents when the Wright Brothers discovered flight or Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine for polio. Yet, ideas such as the ones of these authors, explorers, and scientists — these idea generators –have influenced, transformed and defined the way we have lived during the last two centuries as well as the way we live today.

Ideas are the Fuel for Human Progress

One of my sons raised gerbils when he was young. We used to watch them run mindlessly and endlessly in their “gerbil wheel.” Quite possibly, this wheel was the start of the “spinning” fad we see today – but that is another blog. I am sure those gerbils wondered why humans could not invent a more productive contraption. We can, and we always do. Ideas are the stimuli (“the way)” which allow us to break the endless cycle of life. If there weren’t ideas, there would never be anything new, improved and innovative. Life is a progression of time and events; a process that enables people to make and shape the future rather than living passively as gerbils in the endless wheel of life. Ideas are the fuel of that progression.

Great Ideas Grow Exponentially

An idea is like a seed, which if it is to grow, needs to be planted, watered and nurtured. However, once ideas take root, they are capable of spreading without limit. Take for example of the idea of “travel.” From the wheel millennia ago, to the horse carriage, to automobiles, to airplanes, the idea of travel has spread profusely throughout time and space. Or take the notion of “ long distance communication.” From smoke signals, to carrier pigeons, to the telegraph, to the Internet, humans have built on each generation’s ideas in the pursuit of interconnectivity and interaction. Every innovative policy, eccentric exploration, and disruption of the status quo is rooted in an idea, a small pebble that starts a wave that eventually reaches all shores.

Plato said that the seeds of new ideas must be planted on clean places, “for these ideas touch upon the most momentous subjects. It is not physical phenomena but these universal ideas that we study, as to comprehend the former, we have to first understand the latter.” I am interested in your ideas regarding why ideas matter.

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