How to stop being overly attached to your ideas

close-up of lightbulb
close-up of lightbulb
Image: Reuters
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I love coming up with ideas. Sometimes I imagine my brain as a rock tumbler, turning over rough notions about social justice and boot trends and the facial-recognition capabilities of crows. The thoughts rattle around and then out pops something bright and shiny. A gem of an idea! I’ll then excitedly offer it to my boss or a colleague or the anonymous masses of social media.

But sometimes the response is that my idea is not a gem but a common pebble, better tossed into a gravel driveway than put on display. Under such circumstances I may feel discouraged (What if my mind is filled with nothing but pebbles?) or take offense. But as a recent interview with Nobel prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman highlights, we’re ill-served by being precious about our ideas. Instead, we should treat them as easy come, easy go.

“I’ve never thought that ideas are rare,” Kahneman said on Adam Grant’s Work Life podcast. “If that idea isn’t any good, then there is another that’s going to be better.”

In other words, as Grant observes, Kahneman believes that ideas are abundant rather than scarce—which “makes it easy to stay detached.” It’s a mindset that’s served him well throughout his career, during which he and his frequent collaborator Amos Tversky introduced the world to important concepts from the planning fallacy (or, the tendency to underestimate how much time a task will take) to loss aversion (which holds that people place more value on avoiding loss than they do on getting a potential gain). Since Kahneman is confident that there are always more ideas just around the bend, it’s easier for him to let weak ones go and to feel excited and surprised, rather than upset, upon discovering that he’s wrong.

Kahneman’s abundance mentality means he doesn’t see his individual ideas as extensions of himself, nor does he take their reception as mini-referendums on his worth. It’s an approach that fuels curiosity and open-mindedness. “Being less identified with your ideas is also associated with having many of them, discovering that most of them are no good, and trying to do the best you can with a few that are good,” Kahneman explains.

Practicing detachment with respect to our own ideas is an important skill, especially for managers, who risk producing shoddier work and demoralizing staff if they consistently prefer the thought that came from their own head over the contributions of the people they supervise.

Kahneman’s view that ideas are plentiful also may be particularly reassuring for anyone who’s had to walk away from a plan that just wasn’t working out. Kahneman himself says that he used to tell his students that walking away from an idea is often the rational and efficient thing to do: “I used to encourage them to give up, at a certain point.”