How Young Go-Getters Get Their Best Ideas

Four bright sparks tell us how.

Words by Amelia Marshall

By Amelia Marshall, 6/7/2017

Young people are facing more barriers in entering the workforce than ever before, despite having all the right tertiary qualifications. Not to worry: a growing number are inventing their own jobs, founding start-ups or researching projects that are making their mark in a number of industries. Simply put, projects being spearheaded by 20-somethings are changing the world.

According to StartUp Muster’s 2016 report, 40% of start-up founders are 35 or under. Gone are the days when seniority was about being the oldest person in the workplace. We’re now transitioning to an ideas economy, where success is determined by solving problems.

To find those solutions, Jan Owen, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians, says, “We need fresh and unfettered thinking.” Which is something she believes young people specialise in.

“I think that young people have got less thought bubbles and lizards on your shoulder telling you what you can and can’t do,” she explains. “And they’re more open to trying and learning, and also taking risks.”

Likewise, StartUp Muster’s Monica Wulff says young people today are more likely to engage with ideas. “I think there is more of a concerted discussion at a younger age now around what problem do you want to solve, rather than what kind of job do you want to get.”

Perhaps it’s one upside to a lack of job security: “I think it all comes back to recognising there has to be personal ownership over our careers and our livelihoods that we are able to make from that.”

But how do young go-getters actually get their best ideas? We asked four bright sparks to share their tips for getting that light bulb moment – and how to take it through to fruition.


Johnathan Lee

Find something you’re passionate about

2017 Westpac Asian Exchange Scholarship recipient, Johnathan Lee’s ambitions are out-of-this-world. Literally. “My life goal is to work in the design and construction of future spacecraft,” he says. But the beginnings of this passion are pretty relatable: “I’m a huge Star Trek fan.”

Get him started on the topic of space travel, and the Commerce and Aerospace Engineering student’s enthusiasm is palpable.

“I think it’s a bold new frontier that’s really exciting to look at,” he says.

Even when you’re not trying to travel to Mars, turning an idea into reality is a long-term project. So it’s best to choose something you find interesting –something you can maintain a curiosity about over the coming months or years.

It’s not necessarily about turning a thing you love into a living. Instead, it’s about finding something that helps drive you. For Toby Hendy, a 2017 Westpac Future Leaders Scholar, that means doing work that pushes her. “I’ve always done what challenged me. So I love coming up with ideas, but, even more than that, I like pursuing the more pertinent areas that are outside of my comfort zone.”

Toby walks her talk. She’s currently studying a PhD in Physics at ANU, despite always finding the humanities far easier than things like maths and science. “I wasn’t instantly good at physics, I wasn’t natural at maths and numbers. I’ve always found it was hard, but I also saw that it was physics and maths that can solve the problems that the world is facing at the moment.”

Her range of interests has influenced her approach to her studies: she’s combining physics and biology, by using nanotechnology to test plants’ natural defence mechanisms. The aim being to find out how to harness those natural defences to create stronger crops.

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Toby Hendy

Talk to experts

One thing that came up time and time again in conversation with these high achievers is the importance of expert guidance.

Johnathan says it’s his number one piece of advice for people who want to pursue a project. “First thing would be to find someone you trust. Talk through it with them. See what they think to develop your idea a little bit more. But find some way to test that idea to see how feasible it is.”

Like many 22-year-olds, 2017 Westpac Future Leaders Scholar Madeleine Way enjoys a cool glass of cider. So much so that she’s followed that passion through to a scientific study of how different apples create a quality cider. Her advice for people who have an idea they’d like to explore? “Go to the experts in that area and get some advice and go from there.”


Madeleine Way

But also look beyond your area of expertise

The Foundation For Young Australians’ Jan Owen says it’s important to step outside of your usual circle of influence. “Think about how broad you can cast your net of networks and conversations and access to ideas, because the echo chamber is very unhelpful in the realm of ideas.”

“You need to be really mixing it with people that you would not normally have thought about and particularly people from different disciplines and different ways of thinking.”

It’s another thing that came up repeatedly: talking to people outside of your circle expands the way you think.

Scottish expat and 2017 Westpac Future Leaders Scholar Isla Pawson had her eyes opened to inequality when she was a student at a public school in Edinburgh. The school pulled in people from the surrounding area, showing a mix of wealth and disadvantage. She’s now studying political economy with the aim of addressing the causes of inequality.

She says some of her best ideas come from engaging with things that are completely separate to her area of study.

“I’ve started reading a lot more, and trying not to read things that have direct relevance to what I’m doing… I sometimes find that you do need that time away from a direct engagement with economics, because it can be super dry.”

She is also a huge advocate for travel, saying it allows her to “engage with the extent of different problems, rather than getting completely shut into having a really closed view of what you’re trying to deal with.” She says a recent trip to Nepal gave her a fresh perspective, and re-ignited her desire to change the world for the better.

Jonathan Lee says receiving a Scholarship from the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation introduced him to people who have a huge variety of interests and ideas about the world. It’s opened him up to another level of inspiration.

“When I think about the Bicentennial Foundation and the Scholarship, I think about the incredible people I met at the Summit this year, and how incredible their visions, their skills and expertise were. I think it’s exciting that I’m able to work and talk with these people in order to make a difference in the community.”

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Isla Pawson

Go for it

Once you’ve done the prep work, you can often wonder when the “right” time is to get started. Madeleine Way says there’s no time like the present. “You want to take opportunities and run with it. If you’ve got a good idea, try and get it out there. There’s no point keeping it to yourself.”

FYA’s Jan Owen says young people are doing some incredible work – and inspiring each other in the process.

“Success drives success… the more that we tell these stories of how young people are actually intricately involved in driving change is key.”

Moreover, youth shouldn’t stop people from making a contribution. In fact, it can be a huge asset.

“I always say if you’re over 45 and you don’t have an under 30 year old mentor – not mentee, but mentor – you’re going to miss a whole heap of the next ten years. I think the smart organisations are harvesting young people’s skills and technologies.”

Johnathan, Toby, Isla and Madeleine are 2017 Westpac Scholars, who have been recognised for having the drive and courage to shape a better future for all Australians. If you’d like to find out more, or to apply for a 2018 scholarship, visit