Entrepreneurs are people who run on big ideas. We love imagining possibilities, and we’re not afraid to risk our careers and livelihoods to trying to turn our vision into reality.
But the very qualities that make us entrepreneurs—a love of possibility, a high tolerance for risk, the tendency to go all-in, and raw determination—can also be our undoing. They set us up for unhealthy relationships with our own ideas.
In my experience, these unhealthy relationships manifest in two opposite ways:
The first I’m calling idea codependency.
Idea codependency happens when you and your big idea are just not right for each other, but you can’t seem to let it go. Maybe you had this beautiful brainblast when you were young, in your twenties. Things were different then. You’ve stuck with it for a long time. Maybe, for a while, things were good. You drafted a business plan, raised some capital, built a website, rented out floor space. You invested more and more, and your idea gave back—but just not enough. Not enough to really keep you going, financially or emotionally.
You’ve put so much into this idea, and you know it could work—just know it—if you could only get a little more cash, break into X market, get your timing right...
Don’t beat yourself up. Some ideas are better off alone.
The second unhealthy kind of relationship leads to what I call being a serial ideaist.
A serial ideaist is always attracted to the next big thing. They see possibility everywhere, and each new big idea is definitely better than the last one. In fact, all the success they are going to have with their next big idea is going to help them turn around and launch the one they’re putting down right now… And then the one before that… And so on. Serial ideaists don’t really abandon ideas; they just shelve them for the moment.
I’m a serial ideaist. My next writing project is always my golden ticket to international acclaim. Unfortunately, none of my biggest projects have ever reached a polished draft because somewhere in the messy middle, I saw something else glinting in my periphery.
It hurts to say. It makes me feel like less of a writer and less an entrepreneur. But I suffer from serious serial ideaism.
How many promising, profitable ideas were let go by my fellow serial ideaists as they rushed into their next venture? How much farther along in my career—writing, business, or both—would I be if I had just stuck it out in some of my earliest projects?
And, on the flipside, how many great ideas never even saw the light of day, because idea codependency prevented a talented entrepreneur from seizing the moment for another idea on their backburner? As entrepreneurs, we’re stuck in a constant balancing act of commitment.
So when do you know you should let your big idea go and move on to the next thing?
According to Dale Partridge, every big idea should have a one-year timeline. If your big idea can’t be or isn’t profitable in one year, it should be put down. On the flipside, if your idea has legs, don’t give it up until you’ve put in the full twelve months.
The one-year rule is useful because it mitigates risk. It helps us articulate the simplest, most concise version of our business so we’re not distracted by tangents and hubris. It reminds us of the goal: profit. And it prevents us from squandering any more of our precious free time than we have to.
The one-year rule of thumb is meant as an indicator. Whatever your business is, one of the first things you should do is set goals with deadlines. If you’re consistently not reaching your goals—or you’ve fallen dizzyingly far behind your deadlines—it’s probably time to course correct.
Another way to gauge the strength of your big idea—and whether it might be time to Old Yeller the notion—is to get a fresh pair of eyes on it. Ideally, several.
As Dale often reminds us, entrepreneurs need a community for guidance and advice.
We’re headstrong individualists; we need a group of people we can trust. These could be mentors, respected peers, professional connections, or your partner if you’re lucky enough to have one.
Find people who know you and understand your unique circumstances to get their opinions on whether you should keep going forward with your big idea. Invite them to get together. Take notes on what they say. Really listen to them.
It’s hard to let a big idea go, just like it’s hard to pass up on a new, brilliant opportunity. But if you know yourself and hold yourself accountable to some basic rules and principles, you’ll stay focused on what really matters: not the viability of the ideas in your shop, but the quality of the life that you make.