Robert L. Read

Head Coach of Public Invention.

What to do when you hear about your idea: “That’s been done…”

About twenty times in my career as a Computer Scientist and Public Inventor I have somehow informally presented an idea to someone or a group of people, only to hear them say, “That’s been done.”
Sometimes they add some additional information about who and when, but often their memory is vague.
To a would-be maker, inventor, or researcher, “That’s been done” can feel like a punch to the solar plexus.
My advice is: Don’t you believe it.
All of the twenty times I got that sinking free-fall feeling in response to “thatsbeendoneism”, and I took notes and researched what I was told. Approximately once it turned out to really be true.
The other 95% of the time, the work mentioned in no way decreased the value of the project I was undertaking, and even validated it. Sometimes it seemed to have no relation whatsoever. Sometimes it was tangentially related, but the previous researchers had taken a very different approach. Sometimes they had begun and stopped, and in the twenty intervening years the march of technology, and even mathematical theorems, has since opened up new vistas.
I don’t like the way the word “privileged” has come to be used in the last 20 years, but in that usage of the word, as a researcher, I have been. I can be an over-confident ass, with the redeeming feature of complete blindness to my own ignorance. I am anti-fragile. Yet, I suffer from the impostor syndrome and insecurity, just like everyone else reading this, I suppose.
Judging by the emotions I personally go through when I hear “That’s been done”, I’m sure those words have prematurely killed many a fine and interesting research project, invention, or even DIY craft project.
We must forgive the thatsbeendoners, and understand them. They are genuinely trying to inform us. However, the human weakness of a desire to appear knowledgeable combines with the human frailty of not listening patiently enough to our ideas before passing judgment, multiplied by the human limitation of memory. The result is that most of the time when someone says “That’s been done” you should carefully note what they say, plan to carefully research it tomorrow, and not worry too much.
Many research topics can go in about ten different directions. Any one researcher may have considered two of them; the other eight are open to you. When this is not true, you will likely know, because these become recognized under the moniker “open problems”.
Do your homework and spend a lot of time in the library or researching online. When you have done that, work boldly and confidently in whatever direction your spirit guides you.

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