Sunk Costs and Idea Debt


We typically think about concepts like sunk costs and debt in relation to economics — a cost we incurred and cannot be recuperated, and an obligation to pay or render something to someone. Which shows how strongly financial metaphors have permeated our culture. Rarely we think of them when it comes to ideas.

Yet, it is a useful exercise.

Good ideas hatch in different environments and evolve through very diverse, sometimes even counter-intuitive paths. But while there may not be an ideal length of incubation, the longer we delay going from ideas to reality, the less we learn about what it takes to get it done.

Focusing too much on what we think we know leads to fantasizing about a project, or investing too much of ourselves into how it should turn out — it could be our ticket to fame, recognition, and demand. We get stuck.

The greater the time lag between idea and execution, the larger our sunk costs grow in loss of energy and momentum, and second-guessing ourselves. Because we are emotionally invested in the imaginary version of the idea, we keep thinking of better ways to think about it for fear it will not happen the way we envisioned.

Our expectations of ourselves have become a straight jacket.

This is what “Idea Debt” is about. Artists and creatives know this loop all too well. In Out on the Wire episode 7: Dark Forest with host Jessica Abel, artist Kazu Kibuishi introduces the concept of “Idea Debt.” [h/t Austin Kleon]

Kazu says:

I try not to to look at what I’m going to do as this amazing great grand thing. I’m not just fulfilling some old promise that I made a long time ago. Now I’m actually solving problems in the moment, and that’s so much more exciting than than trying to fill years of what I like to call my “idea debt.” That’s when you have this dream of this awesome thing for years. You think, “Oh, I’m going to do this epic adventure. It’s going to be so great.” The truth is, no matter what you do, it will never be as great as it is in your mind, and so you’re really setting yourself up for failure.

I like snowboarding, and I used to like hitting all the jumps. And when I would go down the mountain, I would notice a bunch of young snowboarders who were waiting at the top of the jumps.

They may look like they’re waiting their turn. But in fact that they’re waiting there because they’re afraid to hit that jump. And what they don’t realize is that, over time they’re getting colder.

The Idea Debt of having to make that jump, and land it, and be impressive, is getting greater because of the amount of time they’re investing, waiting there, getting colder, at the top of the hill.

By the time they actually do it, they’re probably not going to fulfill that dream. So I learned to just hit the jump or pass it. Do it in the moment, or not at all.

When we study the work of great inventors and innovators, we find that there are plenty people who got things egregiously wrong in their first try. But since the idea was out there, others could contribute to fixing it — or they could do so themselves by trying new approaches. Many of them got better with adoption and time.

When we apply the energy concept to understanding how relationships work we see that giving and receiving is more a matter of perception than reality. We can resolve the internal conflict between making what we want and what we think could happen match by accepting what actually happens.

The principles apply to the idea-to-execution process as well. There is a sweet spot between coming up with an idea and getting it done. We bridge the distance by engaging our curiosity of what the future may hold, and learning to simultaneously accept and act upon what is happening right now as we go about getting our idea done.


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