The Power of a Single Great Idea

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 3
June, 2014

By Dan Coughlin



Barb and I took Sarah and Ben to Washington, DC for a much anticipated family vacation. DC is like a giant museum. You wander and you look at things. And I loved it.


The most memorable moment for me was during our visit to the U.S. National Archives. Every room was packed with items and exhibits and cool computer programs. The most impressive room of all was called the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

I was expecting to find all kinds of things in the Rotunda. Instead it features just six pieces of paper in this massive room. Six pieces of paper that were written on over 200 hundred years ago and are barely legible. They don’t contain directions to a pile of gold or a description of a famous person. They just carry a single concept: how to run a national democracy and why it’s so important. They consist of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights. These are the only things in the most beautiful room in the whole building.

Now that’s the way to treat a powerful idea.

Ideas should be treasured, not trampled on. They should be looked at as magnificent jewels, not throwaway wrappers. When you land on a concept and think to yourself, “Wow, this is a good idea,” don’t let your next thought be, “What time do I have to be at the next meeting?” Treasure your ideas. Scrape the dirt off of them as though you were mining for gold. It takes time to uncover a great idea and bring it to fruition. So what? It’s a much better use of time than a whole lot of other things.


An idea can change or create an industry, and in some cases change the world.

“We’ll have a computer on every desk around the world.”
“We’ll capture an image on film and print it on paper.”
“We’ll record sounds.”
“We’ll create an electric light bulb that will make the nights as bright as the days.”
“We’ll ask people to donate blood and we’ll separate out the plasma so we have ways of helping people in the short term when we don’t have a match for their blood type.”
“We’ll create minimally-invasive surgical tools to fix muscles, tendons, and hearts without tearing the person’s body open.”
“We’ll create a way for people to communicate electronically between computers.”

Pause here for a moment. Write down five ideas you have seen change or create an industry or even change the world.


If someone else can develop a life-changing or work-changing idea, why can’t you or I do the same thing?

Many of us have been taught from a young age to be humble. Humility is seen as the mecca of values. I do think humility can be a powerful personal trait in a leader, but only so long as it doesn’t mean that the person devalues himself or herself.

If humility means that you don’t see yourself or your ideas as having the potential to be of value to other people, then not only have you robbed yourself of your own potentiality, you have also robbed other people of the value you have to offer to them.

Between my career and my volunteer activities I have interacted with people from kindergarteners to CEOs of large corporations and virtually every age group and life situation in between. In other words, I’ve spent my life being with people. One thing I’ve noticed consistently is that many people doubt themselves. They doubt the power of their own insights. They seem to think that a great idea always comes from someone else.

Why do they think that way? What made the other person so special that he or she had great ideas? Oftentimes, it was simply the desire to carry the idea all the way through from creation to completion. And why does one person create and complete while another discards a potentially great idea? I think it’s because the former values his or her ideas while the latter does not. In order to actualize an idea we have to believe that our ideas have value.


In his book, Einstein, Walter Isaacson quoted Albert Einstein as saying, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote four ground-breaking papers that changed the world of physics forever while he was working as an assistant examiner in a patent office. He was 26 years old. How is that even possible? It has been called Einstein’s Miracle Year. It may help for you to know that he had been working on these ideas and discussing them with other people for at least 10 years before he published the papers. After 10 years of intense study and discussion, the insights came to him in a rush.

That’s the generator of great ideas. In every type of performance there are people who come up with ground-breaking ideas. They seem almost like miracles. However, if you study the story behind the story you almost always find that the person had been studying the topic intensely for many years before the “new idea” popped into his or her mind.

In order to generate a single great idea you need to fill your mind with a lot of useful ideas before the magical moment happens when two or more ideas merge into one powerful concept that you can leverage into something bordering on miraculous.


Think of a garden. Plant a seed in good, rich soil and keep that soil free of weeds and rocks and let that plant grow. Think of a work life. Plant that idea in a healthy, rested person and keep the mind free of worries and an overloaded schedule and let that idea grow into something really valuable.

When a computer flash drive gets filled up, you can’t add anymore files to it. You have to clear out some of your old stuff in order for it to have room for new items to be saved. You have to carve out enough time and space in your life that a baby idea can grow up into a mature, functioning contributor. If you overload your life with activities where you’re constantly rushing, don’t be surprised when you never land on a great idea.


My son, Ben, does a basketball shooting drill on the driveway. He puts down masking tape in a variety of spots and then he sees how many shots he can make in five minutes. My job is to rebound and throw the ball back to him. I know it’s a tough life, but someone has to do it.

One day he hit 14 shots. He said, “Dad, let’s do it again. I’m going to try to double my score.” So I set my iPhone for five minutes and I put it back in my pocket. Ben got up to 25 made baskets and he said, “Dad, how much time do I have left?” I said, “I don’t know. The buzzer will go off when the time is up. Just keep shooting.” So he worked as fast as he could and he made 50 shots. He said, “Dad, that’s enough. How much time do I have left?” I pulled out my phone. It had never started. Ben forgot about the deadline and had just maintained a sense of urgency the whole time he shot. I have no idea how long he was shooting. He just kept going and going and going.

That’s the mindset we need regarding great ideas. Work with a sense of passion and purpose and urgency. Don’t worry about having to develop a great idea within a certain time frame. Just keep working as fast as you can with as much passion and purpose as you can muster. Remember that a Pixar movie takes four years to create, but every one of them has gone to #1 at the box office. Stop imposing deadlines on your greatness. It might happen at 26 and it might happen at 66. What difference does it make? Keep feeding your mind, believe in the value of your ideas, be ready for an idea that comes to you in an instant, create and complete the concept, and let the magic happen. You might just end up with an idea that changes the world, or at least an industry.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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