We Already Tried That

Early in my career, I had a bad habit. When someone new to the team verbalized a recognizable idea, I’d gleefully say:

“yeah, we already tried that and failed”

Naturally, they’d trash the idea and ask what they should do instead. I justified it to myself that I was using my experience to guide the team and protect them from wasting time or publicly failing.

One day a new junior engineer decided not to ask, but to just try one of these things. He came to me and said:

“I thought it would be helpful if we had X so I started a PR, is this a good idea?”

I looked at the PR. He succeeded where we all failed, and did so in one sitting. The PR was small and simple. How did he do this? Was he a genius? Did we miss something obvious?

Problems Change Over Time

When I looked at the code, I realized the constraints that prevented us from succeeding were no longer there. Things changed in the year since we last tried. This made his change trivial. The only thing that changed was we were living in a different time.

From that point on, I’ve tried my best to never say those words again. First, I think protecting people from failure is a bad model and even failing to do something ambitious that is your idea has a lot of value. Second, more often than not, people surprise you. They either succeed or get way further than you think, and it feels amazing to see someone shatter your perceptions of them. Finally, you’re discouraging people from being vulnerable and sharing their ideas and they are less likely to share the next one.

Isn’t this just

As I’ve gotten more involved in open-source communities, I’ve noticed a macro version of this. When you’re creating something new, experienced people will come out of the woodworks with comments like:

“Isn’t this just a modern version of X

where X is some previous solution that rhymes with yours or prior art.

These kind of comments are profoundly lazy at best and malicious at worst. Looking at it objectively, the comment is practically tautological. You’re not introducing any new information, all you’re doing is pointing out the obvious: that all progress (societal, technological, business, etc) is a series of cycles and rhyming ideas and there are few, if any, truly original ideas. Just because something has been tried, doesn’t guarantee it will fail. It says almost nothing about how the idea interacts with the world today or the people implementing it.

Why do we do this?

I’m not confident I understand why we do this, but let me be an armchair psychologist for a moment. I suspect we do this because we are protecting our ego.

If I point out that your idea is unoriginal, I’ve demonstrated my knowledge and experience and that increases my reputation of being a smart person.

More importantly, I’ve successfully convinced myself that the logical thing for me to do next is comfortable, blissful, inaction. I can safely say to myself:

“I could easily do this myself, but I am a logical, rational thinker and have calculated that it would be a waste of time. Thus I will save my effort for a truly original idea!”

I don’t need to exert any effort or risk my reputation, and I still get some of the credit for “having” the idea in the first place.

Stop this for your sake and ours

Look, as someone who sometimes is this person: you don’t want be this person! From a civic perspective, you should recognize that ideas are fragile, and you should want to contribute to a world where we have more people trying more ambitious ideas that they believe in. From a selfish, personal perspective, learn that you will be a much happier person if you genuinely desire to see other people succeed. You will be even happier when you learn to believe in your own ideas and don’t treat failure as an existential threat to your identity.