What’s the Big Idea? The Key to Originality

June 10, 2010

Your writing style can be brilliant; your structure superb; your arguments effective; and your stories emotional. But if your premise isn’t original, no one will care.

We’re always seeking that brilliant concept. We know that an original idea is the key to the kingdom.  But for many, finding that idea is a whole lot easier said than done.

There are actually a lot of ways to generate an original idea, but most of them are less techniques than they are tactics. But common to all of them are one of these two core strategies:


What’s the single most influential nonfiction book in history? Although there’s no correct answer for that, toward the top of the list would be The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. An original book? Certainly. It completely altered the course of mankind in countless ways. So how much research do you suppose went into it?

Well, Darwin joined the Beagle expedition in 1831 and returned to England in 1836. It was only at the end of that trip that he started considering the idea that “species might not be fixed” and that “one species does change into another.” In 1838, he put the idea away to work on other projects and started again in 1842, finishing by 1844 a rough draft of a 230-page “essay,” which he wanted to expand with further research. He continued reading and commenting on the subject, finishing his Beagle-related writing in 1854 and beginning to work full time on the theory of evolution. He started studying differentiations in breeds of domestic animals, experimented on plant reproduction, and then, finally, in 1856, decided it was time to actually finish and publish the book. From there it took another three years. In sum, Darwin studied this topic for a total 27 years, off and on, before this landmark work was finally published in 1859.

Here’s another one: Swim with the Sharks—usually considered to be one of the best books ever written on sales, negotiation, and management—was first published in 1988. Mackay, at the time, was 56 years old, drawing on his experience of building a business he purchased when he was 26. That’s 30 years he had been studying what it takes to be successful in business. His knowledge was so vast that he had 98 individual strategies for success, and no doubt one of the biggest reasons for the book’s success is that he put them all into 260 pages; dedicating less than 3 pages per idea. No fluff, no fat, just a book that’s jam-packed with information.

One last one: Good to Great, by Jim Collins. In 1996, the author received the criticism, “You know, Jim, we love Built to Last around here. . . . Unfortunately, it’s useless.” The reason the critic gave: the companies written about in Built to Last were always great. “But what about the vast majority of companies that wake up partway through life and realize that they’re good, but not great?” So Collins assembled a team of 21 researchers, who got together and examined what made a good-to-great company. They started by creating a detailed algorithm for determining what qualified as good-to-great, and after six months came away with a list of eleven companies they would study. The 21 researchers then spent the next four years interviewing the chief executives of these companies and discussed and argued what should make it into the book. After five years, they had the principles that made this classic.

It makes perfect sense: If you spend more time studying a subject than anyone else, eventually you’re going to notice some things other people miss. That’s just physics. And when you notice those things, you become the genius; credited for the huge insight that altered the way people think. In reality, you didn’t invent anything new, you just wrote down what other people we’re already doing. But that’s where the originality comes in: in being the first to say it.

Bucking the System

If lesson one is to noticing what other people are doing and then doing it, lesson two is noticing what other people are doing and then doing the opposite.

Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, has made a living at this. He recognized that one of the standards of society is: The harder you work, the more money you make. Well, he didn’t want to work hard, so he figured out how to stop working, get paid, and spend his entire life on vacation. He stopped working for his own company, and profits went up 40%. He won a gold medal in the Chinese National Kickboxing Championships by exploiting loopholes in the rules. He’s a bit of a hustler and a con man, and he’s pissed a lot of people off, but he’s darn original and his book is a #1 bestseller as a result.

Robert T. Kiyosaki, of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame, has operated not too differently. His father worked hard, studied, got a Ph.D., and saved, but was never able to gather any wealth. Kiyosaki, by contrast, almost didn’t go to college because he wasn’t sure it would be worth the time or the money; many of the wealthiest people in the world dropped out or didn’t go at all, and his first book was called If You Want to Be Rich & Happy Don’t Go to School?. Kiyosaki has argued that a house is not necessarily an asset; that 401Ks and mutual funds are the worst places you can put your money; and that you should invest before you pay your bills, not after. In short, he does the opposite of what most say to do, and that’s what’s made him famous.

Of course, these folks also did their research. And I don’t think either of them started with the idea of writing a book, or with the idea of breaking the rules; they just knew what they wanted, figured out what it would take to get it, and broke the rules along the way because that’s what was necessary. They happened to have personalities and/or mentors that were conducive to that method of attack, and that was a key factor in their success.

Consider the countless people who have become famous by swimming against the current: Howard Stern, Orson Welles, Samuel Beckett, Socrates, Jesus, Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Ron Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, . . . these people, in their own ways, have done the opposite of what society has told them to do, and in the process altered the world.

What Does This Mean for You?

The list of models I’ve used may be a bit intimidating. I used these because they make good examples. Although I do believe that the more research you conduct, and the more you’re willing to swing out, the more likely your success, I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary to spend decades studying a topic or risking life and limb before you write your nonfiction book. After all, Darwin, Collins, and Kiyosaki had all published other books before the ones that made them famous.

But these principles can provide a foundation from which to start: study your topic, and go deeper than others have, and you’ll find some gold among the muck. Play the “what if” game with your area of expertise, and see if you can find evidence to support a hypothesis that’s diametrically opposed to most. In taking these actions, you’re sure to find new sources of ideas, and generate the original premise you’re looking for.


This and other strategies for success in Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book on Monday, June 14th from 1:00-5:00 PM. Register today for $10 off (use coupon code June10 at checkout).


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