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Michele Weldon

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Happy Good Idea Year

Posted: 01/03/12 04:58 PM ET

Inundated to the point of deluge about resolutions, predictions and trends for this new year, I do not want to add to the messy mix. But I do want to chime in to herald the need for more great ideas, personally and universally.

I want to help my students come up with great ideas for stories, as well as help my sons come up with great ideas for themselves for the future. I plan to encourage my friends to take risks, try something new, innovate, dare -- even if it is only in small ways. At the very least, I want to provide the environment where good ideas bloom.

Selfishly, I want to have a couple of lightbulbs go off above my own noggin.

It's interesting then to consider the good idea of the lightbulb -- the physical metaphor for a good idea -- and its inception. One hundred and thirty-two years ago on New Year's Eve, Thomas Edison held the first public demonstration of the incandescent light bulb in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

This was also nearly as many years before a gang of buffoons populating the Jersey Shore (which premieres a new season this week and not one cast member still has any sense) would forever equate the state with GTL (gym, tan and laundry) as well as oodles of sex, alcohol and bad dancing.

I'm reminded that on New Year's Eve 1879, Edison showed the world his practical, usable design for the lightbulb, a breakthrough that was invented 40 years earlier but was not in broad distribution.

But even great ideas and practical applications have expiration dates. It was to be this year that the Department of Energy banned the old-fashioned, inefficient Edison 100-watt lightbulbs, after a 2007 congressional approval to phase out the old-style bulbs.

The reprieve for the incandescent bulbs lasts until September 2012, when energy efficiency standards will be enforced and newer, more green bulbs such as LED, compact fluorescent and halogen bulbs will be required.

Edison took a good idea and made it better. Progress and techonological innovation eventually made that good idea obsolete, replaced by better ones. It is the process author Steven Johnson talks about as fermenting good ideas with an intellectual atmosphere and liquid networks that allow your ideas to prosper. It is something I try to do in my classroom and in my life.

Great ideas are usually not the result of one person working alone. We need each other to shine. Heck, there's even a Great Ideas Conference in March in Colorado in case you need the boost. Closer to home there is the March 2012 Creative Chicago Expo, looking for participants, workshop leaders and panelists.

Certainly I am no Edison, but I have had my share of what I thought were brilliant ideas, hatched in community or furthered in concert with others. I have even benefited from the great ideas of others, choosing to engage in their orbits. I thought this would be a good time to toast the better ones, to acknowledge the dumb ones, and with all humility and not an ounce of hubris, look back on my 2011 within a framework of ideas. Some ideas were just to participate, ignore reservations and proceed with confidence.

Perhaps you can take a look at your own recent timeline and see where your great ideas have led you and also nod to the passing of your not so great ideas. For me, this is a list of the highlights. I won't mention the small good ideas of putting truffle oil on garlic naan or buying great tights at Top Shop. Maybe the idea was just to say yes to an instinct. Or to stop saying no to a fear. For me, each one of these ideas has been life-changing.

Let's compare notes.

Turning Derby. Without hesitation, quad skating in Derby Lite classes in suburban Chicago could be my best idea of the last 10 years. I coaxed my friend Schmidtylicious into skating with me each week in an empty recreational center across from an Enterprise car rental place and next door to a laundromat. At first on Mondays in January 2011 in the beginner class and later in the Intermediate class on Wednesdays, I learned that it is OK to do something just for fun, with no ulterior motives other than to laugh and work out hard -- so hard sometimes that it hurt to walk. It's OK to skate around the track in circles like it means everything and to laugh so hard you end up snorting and drooling into your mouth guard. So many nights Sue and I would drive home from class roaring and repeating, "God, that was fun." I met women I really like who are not like me in any of the predictable ways, except that we all love to skate, compliment each other's fishnets and scream each other's derby names during a drill. It is OK to be 53 and bad at something because you will get better. It is OK to act like you are 10 years old skating to Lady Gaga and Pink while scream-singing when you do your crossovers. Thanks to Derby, I am in this hilarious sorority of tough, proud, confident women who wear sequined hot pants in public. I own three pairs.

Joining The OpEd Project. In January, my talented friend, Katherine Lanpher, encouraged me to explore training with this non-profit initiative aimed at diversifying the voices heard in public conversations in mainstream media. By June, I was a seminar co-leader and mentor/editor thanks to founder, Catherine Orenstein, one of the smartest people I have ever met. She's up there with Joyce Carol Oates, Isabel Allende and Tom Wolfe (all people I idolize and had a chance to interview), for her energy, vision and determination. What derby is doing for my body and my soul, The OpEd Project is doing for my mind and my soul. I trained under Lanpher, Deborah Siegel and Zeba Khan, learning the curriculum, listening in weekly staff calls, answering emails, brainstorming on new projects and feeling completely filled up intellectually and with purpose. I know this is the right thing to do and that it is noble to enrich the scope and reach of smart people everywhere and to amplify their influence.

Each seminar I meet amazing women and men from a variety of fields, disciplines and mindsets, trying to change the world by expressing the expertise they have in a meaningful way, not to boast or gain more Twitter followers, but to have influence. To matter. The work is so rewarding and the women on the team so dazzling, it makes me deliriously pleased to stay up late, wake up early and jump in on a fellowship call with 15 people congratulating each other, supporting each other and solving each other's problems. I do this on top of my work as an assistant professor of journalism at the Medill School, Northwestern University and even though I think I work harder now with both these jobs than I ever have in my life, I am so pumped. As Katharine Graham said, "To love what you do and feel that it matters, how can anything be more fun?"

Pushing social media hard in my classes at Medill. Teaching on the graduate and undergraduate levels at my alma mater Northwestern University since 1996, this year I felt energized and convinced that upping the requirements introduced last year for active Twitter participation in the basic reporting class was a good idea. Teaching the importance of social media tools for journalism was met with some resistance -- like the student who said I mandated it to have more followers or the one who claimed I was completely wrong to say social media contributed to the Arab Spring. But I know it broadened sourcing, attitudes and horizons for students eager to see how quickly they can connect globally to a live newsmaking world. I know these students who are good writers and reporters will be ahead of others on internships, having learned how to follow journalists, mine Twitter, Quora, Muck Rack and Facebook for story ideas, sources and trends, and how to tweet news as it happens, as well as how to tweet their own stories and maintain their brands. I know I learn a ton every day, something everyone can do a little more of.

Telling stories live. At the urging of my friend, Randi, and trying desperately to be a teeny weeny little bit like my playwright friend Arlene Malinowksi, I stepped onto the stage at Martyr's in Chicago in March 2011 for the Moth Story Slam to tell a live five-minute true story. I was scared. I was shaking. But I loved it. I didn't win that night, somebody who talked about sex and said the f-word a lot did, but I did make the podcast. I went back in November -- again Randi encouraged me -- and this time I won. With a story on reunions. I beat out the people who talked about sex and used the f-word. And I am going on to the March 13 Grand Slam at ParkWest in Chicago. The experience of telling stories live to an audience of intelligent story-hungry adults is like teaching on steroids, but with the audience getting all my jokes. I also learned I absolutely cannot even have a sip of wine because I forget pieces of the story I have memorized. It was one of the 10 best feelings of the year.

So much for the good ideas. I have had many more bad ideas this past year -- worn a lot of them -- but I am choosing now, instead of enumerating them and making me feel stupid all over again, to go with the better idea of letting the bad stuff go. I have decided not to bring potato chips or French fries, even the sweet potato ones -- into the home. I have decided to learn from the heartaches and not dwell on the past. I have decided -- to quote my friend Katherine -- that no is a bump on the way to yes and to keep revising, polishing and perfecting a good idea until it sticks. I have some ideas swirling in my head waiting to be born. It is an excellent idea to surround yourself with people bursting with ideas, whose creative muscle is stretched often and who find ways to remain intellectually athletic.

I am not Thomas Edison. I am not even Barbara Dolan, who founded Derby Lite. I am no Katie Orenstein. But thanks to both of them and others, it has been a symphony of great and divergent ideas that has brought me to this happy place at the start of another great year. I hope to create and collaborate on even better ideas in 2012, aligning myself with the best efforts of all those around me. And I hope every year to renew that brilliance with no expiration date in sight.

Happy Good Idea Year.

 

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