Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

Are You Afraid of Good Ideas?

In this excerpt from his new book Poke the Box, author Seth Godin discusses people who, because of fear, save up ideas without acting on them.

Poke the BoxAre you one of those people?

One of the people with too many good ideas? The folks who have notebooks filled with notions, or daydreams filled with the future?

You've certainly met these people. They're too busy taking notes to get anything done, too busy inventing to actually instigate.

To stop this process, one needs to do only two things:

Start. And then...


Can't do the second if you don't do the first.

Paul is one of those people. And he carries the ideas around like a bag of rocks, insulation against criticism, protection from blame. "Hey, can't you see I've got this big notebook full of ideas? Of course you can't hold me responsible for accomplishing anything, I've been too busy thinking up the next thing.... If only those jerks on the Group W bench would listen to me, everything would be fine."

The problem, I think, has nothing to do with the jerks he works for, and everything to do with a fear of starting. His incessant brainstorming also gives him the pleasure of having a great excuse at the same time he's avoiding the short-term pain of failure.

Fear on the left, fear on the right

Some of us hesitate when we should be starting instead. We hold back, promise to do more research, wait for a better moment, seek out a kinder audience.

This habit is incredibly common. It eats up our genius and destroys our ability to make the contribution we're quite capable of making. Call it hypogo—trapped into not enough starting.

Surprisingly, the flip side is also true.

Some people deal with the fear and hide out by doing something else. They overstart, constantly dreaming up the next big thing, bigger than big. They might start a zeppelin transit company on Monday, and then drop it for a Stirling engine patent application on Wednesday, and perhaps, if that doesn't take off in just a day or two, aim for a business focused on home delivery of notary services by the end of the week.

Fitzgerald nailed it when he described Jay Gatsby's attitude: "What would be the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?" It's easy to fall so in love with the idea of starting that we never actually start.

The person who constantly asks questions, interrupts, takes endless notes, and is always in your face isn't just annoying—she's self-sabotaging, a form of hiding. This hypergo mindset is just as safe as the more prevalent kind of under-shipping, because if you're the kind of person who's always dreaming and riffing, of course you can't be held responsible for your work. First, because you're crazy, and second, because you're too busy doing the next thing to be held responsible for the last one.

It's not good to be too fat or too thin. Not good to have blood pressure that's too high or too low. It's only in the center, where we resonate with the market and get it right, that we can produce effectively.

For every person I know who has the hypergo mindset, I know ninety-nine who could contribute by starting more than they do, but don't. If you're not making a difference, it's almost certainly because you're afraid. And that fear might manifest itself at either end of the spectrum.

Excerpted from Poke the Box, by Seth Godin. Reprinted by permission from the Domino Project.

Add New Comment


  • Tess Doucet

    Yes, I am! I plead g.u.i.l.t.y. : )

    Or was, anyway. (Look at my gazillion blogs!!)
    Am trying to change... a seminar on Improv in Business by William Hall was a big help.
    For me, it boils down to recognizing scary feelings. And assessing them: are they realistic, as in pointing out severe and immediate life threatening dangers? Are they hints as to why something may not be exactly right? Or (and this is the main thing) are they a divine clue, that I may be actually zoning in on my purpose in life when I take a certain action or step? Of course, the first kind of fear (life threatening danger) is the only one that should actually stop me.

    What helps me also, is defining how small a risk is acceptable for me and how I can tune a situation to make the risks acceptable. Rallying the right people, like Steve van Valin writes, is a big part. Another big part, is looking at my own behavior. Here's how I work that: (micro change).

    I am interested, Ken Daniels, in the cocreation sites you mention (Genius Crowds and Quirky) though I fear (type II if you follow my drift) online initiatives won't work for me; I need IRL interaction to get the feedback I need, and also to "make the sell". I will test if this fear is type II or type III (crucial distinction) when I have time to look into those sites (next week). I have tried something like this before (a Dutch, local ideagenerating website) but that one didn't work. For me. Interestingly, now that I think of it, I did see one of my ideas come to life recently (TeeKnees, which I coined as "Kruipknietjes"). But that might be because ideas tend to float around anyway. I'm sure I wasn't the only one with the idea. Or was I.. (starting to think of legal action)

    Thanks for another great article, Seth : )

  • Gabriela Garcia

    I agree completely with this article. It parallels an article entitled, "Don't Just Talk About it, Be About it",

    I do believe that fear can subconsciously hold us back in all aspects of our lives. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "You don't have to see the whole staircase, you just need to take that first step."

    -Gabriela Garcia
    Najera Consulting Group

  • Steve Van valin

    I'm definitely one of those serial entrepreneurs and ideators. This excerpt was painful for me, but a good dose of EQ self-awareness medicine as well. It's taken me a ton of years to get it, but I finally began to realize that other people hate other people's ideas in general. It almost always comes down to equating ideas to more work, or the fear of change as the ultimate buzz kill. Who wants that?

    The one glimmer of idealistic hope for me is that I've been on a few elite teams where we understood each other's strengths and liabilities so well, that we could call these things out in action while they were happening. And, if you have some good "closers" on the team that actually get as much of a thrill in setting up a project plan as you do in coming up with the idea... it can actually work. Consider it to be the modern day version of the assemly line in an innovation economy.

    Few teams or cultures have this level of permission or dynamic awareness without purposefully making an effort to create it. For any one hoping to ratchet up innovation within their culture, this is not only worth going after, but essential if you ever want to fully tap into the positive creative disruption these dreamers possess.

    Steve Van Valin

  • Ken Daniels

    My personal hesitation to take the leap of faith out of the safe haven of Concept and into the harsh reality of Execution comes from a lack of confidence not in my ideas but in my ability to get them noticed by the right people before I run out of funds. I think that must be commonplace, and I wonder what can be done to address it...

    One big boost I've received was discovering the "social product development" company / website Quirky recently. I highly recommend readers of this article take a look at both it and Genius Crowds because seeing other "average" people pursue their dreams is nothing short of inspiring.

  • Doug Brockway


    You have nailed it. In my experience the one common theme underlying people's capacity to move forward is fear.

    I also agree with Mr. Kaiser that not knowing 'how' to take the next steps is a limiting factor. But an element of fear may well play a determining role here too. For a number of the leaders I've worked with, there has been a resistance, or fear, of simply learning the 'how'.

    For these folks, initiation of follow-up is an anxiety provoking experience. What seems to be an inability to organize themselves around taking action is often due to an underlying fear of some sort. Once the anxiety is dealt with, and this can be a complex process, the way is cleared for action.

    Doug Brockway, CEC
    Chief Engagement Officer
    Brockway Human Services

  • David Kaiser, PhD


    Spot on as always. I am looking forward to your new book, I loved Tribes and Lynchpin.

    I want to share an observation and ask a question. I have met many people who have great ideas, but the lack of realization is not a matter of fear, but of simply not knowing where to start, how to take a neat idea like Zeppelin company and create a plan to realize it or pitch it or whatever. I suppose we could say "just do somethign, anything, and then learn from the process," and there is truth to that, but it's also a hard row to hoe that way. What are your thoughts on how to bring the idea down to earth and make it happen?

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach for Authentic Leaders

  • Michael Burlace

    I'm not afraid of ideas. I'm in love with them.
    The shipping I have feared.
    Your article brought it home so clearly.
    Thanks, Seth, that's another great idea unleashed.

  • Tonio Palmer

    I am one of those people but have just acted on one of my ideas. A fabric gift wrap - see The scary part now is more financial. With three kids we need a lot just to live let alone invest in a business. Now it is all about execution, not about ideas.

  • CMike

    Well-known issue. But only a very small minority will jump (coaching can help).
    What really helps is an interface (call it a director) who gets it going (through others but with your involvement), refocuses you if necessary or sends you back to the drawing board because your idea isn't solid. And I'm not talking VCs here.

  • danidwitz13

    This blog is all about me to the tee. I write and write on many subjects that interests me and "think" I have deep insight into the matter. I try at times to get it out, but many times not where it matters. I "honestly" feel that I have the answer and solution to the issues I immerse myself into. But it goes no further than my nose. I do feel like it says, that if only they could hear what I have in my mind, it would blow them away. I also feel that others "cannot" grasp these deep thoughts and big picture ideas. Maybe it is just me that can't grasp how others "think". I'm not a lawyer, yet compose opening and closing statements before the US Supreme Court, with the thought that I could win the case. But I still go nowhere. Good article.

  • Bob DiPasquale

    I will add that even when you finally get the guts, you often need help. Go looking for help with a great idea, and that's when you really meet fear. "I'm sure someone tried and failed already". "I'll jump on when it's bigger"...

    My is the best my notebook ever had. I 'm trying to stop and go with it, but my future equity partners are hiding like the cowards you write about. Thanks for the forum to call them out.