When we think of the greatest minds, we tend to default to those who see into the future and come up with history-changing ideas out of thin air. These are the people who possess unusual levels of creativity, whose minds are sources of extraordinary inspiration and innovation.
Few would be heralded as more emblematic of this in recent history than Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg. Yet, none of them came up with the ideas that launched their businesses themselves.
For Jobs, the idea for the Apple computer came from seeing a computer Steve Wozniak built. It was Wozniak who "had long wanted a personal computer," and ultimately built one himself that impressed Jobs.
For Gates, the idea for the software that would later become Microsoft came after co-founder Paul Allen read an article in Popular Electronics magazine about the Altair 8800 microcomputer and showed it to Gates.
For Zuckerberg, the idea for Facebook came from a newspaper article that covered the controversy surrounding his predecessor to Facebook, a Harvard-only version of "hot or not." The newspaper article suggested that there could be "many benefits to a centralized website" containing all students' photos and Zuckerberg jumped on the opportunity.
None of these three iconic founders had the original inspiration for their companies, but when exposed to the founding idea, they recognized the potential in it, and put their energy, effort, and creativity behind it. Evaluating ideas -- one of three components of critical thinking - is a hallmark of great thinking.
In many ways, this is how I came to the idea for Zarvana, the company I founded to help professionals excel at work while having a fulfilling personal life. As a junior analyst at a strategy and management consulting firm, I heard the co-founder share at a firm-wide retreat that if we were to have the impact we desired we would each need to increase our own productivity.
This planted a seed of inspiration in me that began to grow in earnest when a coworker asked me if I would meet every other week for 30 minutes to discuss productivity. I saw potential in others' passion for productivity and put my energy behind it, and now, seven years later, Zarvana is bringing time-saving, performance-enhancing solutions to ambitious professionals of all kinds.
History-changing ideas exist in seed form all around you, waiting for you to accurately evaluate their potential and invest your resources in them. Rather than sitting in a room with a whiteboard waiting for great ideas to come forth from your own mind, position yourself where you'll be exposed to the people, information, and experiences that contain the ideas you need, like some of the greatest thinkers of our time have done:
Build friendships with the people most passionate about your industry.
Look for the Steve Wozniaks of your industry who are innovating because they want something better for themselves. While this may sound like the oft-cited advice to get your work in front of early adopters, it's more about the relationships you invest in than your marketing strategy. Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Allen, were friends before they were co-founders. The early days of Zarvana were casual, bi-weekly conversations with a co-worker.
Imagine you're going to integrate vertically.
The idea for Microsoft came from seeing Altair's need. Rather than tirelessly looking at your own space, look to the challenges faced by those before and after you in the value chain. Jobs did this continuously at Apple, first with iTunes and the iPod, and then with the iPhone. Opportunities exist in the gaps left by those operating adjacent to you.
Look for inspiration, not just improvements, in user feedback.
Zuckerberg found his big idea in a newspaper's commentary on his original product. And while we all know that customer feedback is important, many scan it only for product and service improvements. You may find your big idea in the one feature all your feedback focuses on, as Zuckerberg did, or your big idea may be in the answer to the frustrated customer who is looking for a solution your current products could never solve.
Many of you won't need to come up with your own ideas. History-changing ideas will come to you. The question is whether you'll evaluate them accurately.