Richard St John: 4 Simple Ways to Have a Great Idea at TED (Transcript)

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Richard St John – Success analyst

Hello TEDsters! This is actually my third TED three-minute talk and it’s great to be able to share my research. But you know, being known as the three-minute guy is not always a good thing.

Now TED is all about ideas worth spreading. But many people think I could never have an idea worth spreading. I’m not creative or artsy or a genius. Well, the good news is anyone can have super ideas. And the interesting thing is that many great ideas come when people do surprisingly simple things. So let’s look at four simple ways to have super ideas.

One is to have a problem, because ideas are solutions to everyday problems. Richard Branson told me he had a problem. He was stranded in the airport after his flight to Puerto Rico was cancelled. And to solve the problem he got on the phone, called around, chartered a plane, sold tickets to the other stranded passengers, and actually ended up making a profit. The light went on. I could start an airline and the idea for Virgin Atlantic was born.

Sam Smith had a problem. He was really heartbroken after his lover left him. And then he thought, ‘well to get over it, I’ll write about it’. The light went on and the idea for a song called Stay with me was born. It went on to win four Grammy awards and Song of the Year. So Sam went from very heartbroken to very happy and the idea solved his problem.

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Number 2: Listen. Because ears are Wi-Fi for ideas. Dr. Jean Carruthers was injecting her patient’s eyelids with Botox to stop them from — to stop muscle spasms. And the patient asked, ‘Why didn’t you inject my forehead?’

Jean said, ‘You don’t have spasms there.’

The patient said, ‘I know but every time you inject my forehead, I get this beautiful untroubled expression’.

Jean listened. The light went on and she had the idea to use Botox to reduce frown lines and wrinkles. And from that one comment a whole new Botox treatment came around that’s now used by millions and valued at billions.

Number 3: Look around. Richard Feynman was a physicist eating lunch in the Cornell University cafeteria. And a student stood up and threw a plate across the room. There were crazy students. And Richard notices the plate spun and through the air, the Cornell medallion on the plate seemed to be spinning faster than the plate. Well he went away, got an idea, worked out the motion of the mass particles, whatever they are. And he said, ‘Looking at that plate was what won his Nobel Prize’. Jeez, I look at a plate and all I see is food, he looks at plate and wins him Nobel Prize. So when it comes to ideas, EyeQ spelled, E-Y-E often wins over IQ.

As Marilyn vos Savant says — and she holds a Guinness record for highest IQ, ‘To acquire knowledge one must study, but to acquire wisdom one must observe.’

Or as Warren Buffett says, ‘I always believe my eyes rather than anything else.’

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And now the biggest secret for super ideas — could I have a drum roll please? Oh, that’s not bad. Come on one more time. Wait, wait, yeah, I’d introduce you. OK, one more time. A drumroll please? Whoa! Now that’s what I call a drumroll.

The important thing is write down your ideas, because if you don’t, they’ll fly away, never to return.

Larry Page says, ‘When I was 23, I suddenly woke up thinking what if we could download the whole web and just keep the links. I grabbed the pen and started scribbling out the details and Google was born.’ When a really great dream shows up, grab it.

So if you are dreaming of a great idea, forget being artsy, or creative or genius, just be yourself, do some really simple things and you too can have super ideas worth sharing. And I can’t wait to hear about them.

Thanks so much.