Oct 13, 2020

How Sir John Templeton Can Help You Turn a Good Idea Into a Great One

As Templeton World Charity Foundation embarks on its new Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing request for ideas, the words of its founder resonate.

By Dawid Potgieter

When Templeton World Charity Foundation launched its new five-year, $40 million grand challenges in human flourishing strategy, we decided to source ideas from the broader scientific community. We did this because we want to galvanize the scientific community to propose innovative, far-reaching, expansive ideas in human flourishing. These aren’t grant proposals, rather, they are high-level ideas for entire portfolios of future research and innovation.

Having worked on several programs like this, I am always amazed by how difficult it can be to predict the success of an idea. For instance, if you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have assumed we were very close to successfully treating major neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Yet progress on that front has been slow and riddled with complications. At the same time, I never would have predicted the extraordinary popularity and success of mindfulness meditation. Now, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it makes sense to me why these efforts turned out the way they did. This is in the inherent challenge of formulating a big idea: We can’t see the future with the same acuity that we can see the past.

Templeton World Charity Foundation founder Sir John Templeton.

Fundamentally, it is incredibly hard to predict whether an idea will work well or not. I tend to express greater enthusiasm for new ideas than the average person, and even I find that nine out of ten ideas that I like at first glance fail upon closer inspection. Yet even these failures can be useful, since they help inform future inquiries. One of the most valuable elements in formulating a good idea is good criticism from trusted advisors, as it will help you steer future inquiries. But formulating a good idea is not just a matter of repetition and trial by error. There are some specific techniques that can be helpful, and I have found the 19 values of Sir John Templeton, the founder of the Foundation, to be a particular useful guide. I have highlighted a few here that are particularly relevant. Ideally, you may find them helpful too as you formulate your own ideas for our Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing.


Cultivate your own curiosity by asking an expansive question. What kind of innovation would change the world in 10 years? What kind of breakthroughs are considered impossible right now, but which would radically improve people’s lives if they were achieved? What problems do we need to solve? What solutions will carry the least risk of causing further problems? Try to think globally and bring as many of your experiences as you can to the problem. As Templeton wrote, “If you seek progress, always remain open-minded, read widely, travel extensively, continually ask questions, and be alert to new methods in your work. Most of all seek.” He also argued that intellectual risk taking was fundamental to progress, writing that when “you choose to leave what seems safe and familiar and voyage into uncharted waters of intellect and creativity, you can become like that first person who set out to conquer fire — an adventurer who dares to go forward into unknown, a pioneer. You become one who can make a difference.”


Think about potential new discoveries in terms of their purpose and who will benefit from them. Early in the process of developing a new idea, it’s important to decide what approaches and information to include and exclude, and it can be helpful to remember what it’s purpose is and who it is intended to benefit. In regards to a topic as big as human flourishing, for instance, it’s impossible to encompass every element ranging from economic well-being to psychological health. Choose a specific problem you want to solve or innovation you want to create, and maintain the focus on it, especially if the solution may cross over disciplinary boundaries. Templeton noted, “if you do not know what you want to achieve in your life, you may not achieve much.” I find this to be an important reminder to keep your idea tightly focused on a clear goal.


Reliability means setting achievable goals and expectations, communicating them clearly, and then delivering on them. Obviously this is important in all realms of life, but particularly so in scientific inquiry. For an idea to successfully translate into new research, innovations or interventions, it’s important to start understanding the logistical and communications requirements early on. This doesn’t have to be complicated, but it’s important to have a general understanding of who needs to be involved, what they will be doing, how they will do it, and how goals and feedback will be communicated between team members. “Because of our ability to think and speak, we are able to cooperate with one another. . . . We can pool our talents,” Templeton wrote. “Our words are the vehicles through which ideas come into manifestation and reflect the character of our thoughts.” And he believed strongly that society’s success comes from something as simple as “we will do what we say.”


No matter how good you believe your idea to be, be humble about it, and seek out constructive criticism. Be aware of the feedback you get. Does your idea fail on closer inspection? Does critical feedback suggest better directions for inquiry? Or is the feedback you’re receiving well-meaning but misguided? In either event, be prepared to say “no,” to yourself or others. Templeton believed that “the more we know, the more we know we do not know. This is what gives life spice. In fact, in order to grow, we must daily become more humble and honest in admitting the paucity of our knowledge. This humble admission of ignorance is what produces progress, what keeps man searching, what makes life as we know it exciting and challenging.”


Embrace constructive thinking. This means maintaining focus on the elements of an idea or innovation that are most likely to serve a useful purpose in the long run and not engaging in research for research’s sake. Even an idea which stands up to criticism and early investigations may fail in the long run because of unforeseen circumstances, overlooked problems or new findings in other fields. Scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs must always be honest about the possibility of failure and use it constructively to drive and inform future inquiry. As Sir John wrote, “cultivating a positive attitude can bring beneficial results,” and he believed that the way we think about things — and our attitudes towards success and failure — greatly affect the way we live and the outcomes in our activities. He had a profound conviction that people are what they think.

“Our words are the vehicles through which ideas come into manifestation and reflect the character of our thoughts.”

Of course, science and innovation are hard, even when we tackle small challenges. Taking on a major problem or a massive subject, such as human flourishing, magnifies the potential for failure, just as it magnifies the benefits of success. Hopefully Sir John Templeton’s words of wisdom can help you at the beginning of the process, just as they have helped me in my life.