In Praise of Thinking Big

An Essay by Adam Veile

The world prefers a simple idea. A simple idea can be accepted or rejected without much effort or consequence. A simple idea doesn’t shake up what we know. A series of simple ideas can get you somewhere without risk. But, every life needs landmarks. Every person needs to know what he or she is capable of. Every life needs big thinking.

What is thinking big? Thinking big is looking at a complex problem in your own unique way. Thinking big is looking at the forest when you only see trees. Thinking big is taking chances. Thinking big gets you unstuck. It requires that you believe you have some amount of control over your world. It involves injecting yourself into the world, instead of just letting things happen. There is no scale to judge what is a big thought and what isn’t. Thinking big is relative. If you’re barely scraping by, figuring out a way to put your kid through college requires big thinking. If you’re rich, putting your kid through college only requires a check.

Some people seem almost offended by big ideas. They see ideas that aren’t pursued or actions that lead to a dead-end as wasted time. They call you a “dreamer” in a tone that somehow makes it an insult. This part is true: Most of your big ideas should never even be attempted. The vast majority of the time, safe and steady is the smart way to live your life. Big ideas have a much higher chance of failure than every day ideas. They have more moving parts and a higher degree of difficulty. Even these failed ideas are not a waste. Thinking big exercises your creativity and analytical thinking. It helps you see not only what is around you, but what could be around you. It brings the long term into focus. It has an energizing effect. In a recent Time Magazine article, Dilbert creator Scott Adam describes the energy he gets from a big idea: “I’m not too concerned that my idea or invention will turn out to be a failure. I assume most of my ideas are flawed in some way. All I ask of my Big Ideas is that they have a nonzero chance of working as far as I can tell. That’s enough to keep me energized.”

Though I see value in thinking, I see more value in doing and the most value in succeeding. To me, there is honor in not taking the easy way out in your thoughts and actions. And, again, I don’t mean every thought and every action. These are calculated risked. Think about your favorite book or movie, and think about how it would look if the protagonist took the easiest route. Think about if the hobbit decided to stay home, instead of going after a ring. Yes, that’s fiction and you’re dealing with real life, but one day all that’s left of you will be a story, and no one’s going to tell it if it’s not interesting.

When you’re 80 years old and reminiscing about the good old days, you’re not going to talk about the hours you’ve spent sitting in front of a computer or your decision to put money in your 401k; you’re going to talk about your adventures. Find joy in the small moments in life. Time with your family, interactions with your friends, your job – those are the things that will take up nearly all your time. But, every life needs some kind of bold action and every mind needs big thinking.