Posts tagged with: entrepreneurship

Rethinking Polymathism

Aristotle is described as being the last person in human history that probably knew “everything”. He was a pioneer of knowledge in a wide array of fields including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theater, music, rhetoric, linguistics, politics and government. Others have since then have had that title ascribed to them. For example, Thomas Young in the early 1800s demonstrated that light is also a wave, did work in linguistics and Egyptology which later helped researchers decode the Rosetta Stone, proposed the tri-chromatic theory of vision, read or spoke at least 11 languages and played the flute. However, the CV of most recent of popularly described polymaths are quite a bit shorter. It seems in today’s world, the body of human knowledge has grown so large that no single individual can “know it all”. Most modern polymaths, like physicist Freeman Dyson or former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold seem to exist largely in a professional silo with writing or product development products that are related to their prior knowledge or work.

This shows some very interesting things that might be useful to take into account as you plan for your future and think about the trajectory your career could take.

  1. Go deep. In a world with a billion people, Thomas Young’s world, the competition one would face in their pursuit of any given field will be much lower than it would be in a world with 7.4 billion people. This affects some fields and industries more than others. (It’s unlikely that anyone is going to write Harry Potter before JK Rowling or that Benedict Cucumberpants will miss all opportunities for a breakthrough performance.) However, this does suggest that you must be mindful of the fact that in any given field in which you wish to be a generalist, you are guaranteed to be facing a swarm of specialists. This doesn’t mean you can’t still add value by combining knowledge in new ways, but it’s important to be aware of. If you don’t find an area to gain deep knowledge in, you run the risk of becoming an intellectual dilettante. Someone who’s is very impressive at party banter, but incapable of building anything with their knowledge.
  2. Find the overlap. Successful modern polymaths seem to find their best success by building off of their core knowledge. For instance, Nathan Myhrvold has intensively studied math and physics. He’s also a very well known chef and cookbook author. However, his expertise didn’t come from a fancy culinary school. He applied his knowledge of physical phenomenon such as thermodynamics to study how food and the chemicals that make it up can be manipulated. Another example: Richard Posner is a judge who has studied economics extensively and was a pioneer in anti-trust law. He now writes on a wide variety of subjects like history and human sexuality, but his analyses always take an economic approach. These thinkers find the edges of their field and figure out where it overlaps with other interesting fields.
  3. Business and action are your best weapons. One thing you’ll notice as you read about polymaths of the past 100 years is that they are often described with initials. PhD in this. MS in that. MBA, JD, MD, EIEIO. The real basis for evaluating someone’s success as a polymath has been institutional. Not only that, as Richard Posner from above points out:

    “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.
    “The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.” -Richard Posner

    However, with the Internet, many of the industries that Posner is speaking of have been flattened. The gatekeepers, those who might try to keep you from participating in an industry by developing artificial barriers, can’t keep you out. Do you think “industry standards” have stopped Elon Musk from building spaceships? Not anymore. And it won’t stop the companies following in his wake building satellites and new ship prototypes. Want to publish a book? The opinions of the New York Times or even publishers don’t matter much when you can self-publish and sell millions of copies. In short, the most wild forest of obscure professional jargon and certifications can’t stop someone who proves the value of their ideas in the marketplace.

  4. Be curious and don’t waste time. The nature of polymathism may have changed, but this remains the same. Those brave pioneers who can successfully transcend the boundaries of a single field must not only remain curious about knowledge outside of their realm, but the must also use every moment as fuel for their curiosity. There is too much knowledge to gain to stuff it in between Netflix episodes.



A Business Plan is not a Treasure Map

If you’re not up-to-date on some of the current thinkings on business plans and the like, let me run through it really quick for you. In the old days, even up until I graduated Uni in 2011, a business plan was a multi-page document (30-40 pages) that you would use to plan out your business in extremely fine detail. You would analyze the product you wanted to build. You would analyze the market you were trying to penetrate. Your customers. The business climate. Etc. It was used both as a roadmap, but also as a way to try to convince banks and financiers to loan you the money to start a venture.

This doesn’t fly with startups, the term startup here to include any business venture whose proposed value is based on introducing some new feature to the market, whether that’s artificial intelligence or just basing a well-known industry around better customer service.

Business owners and entrepreneurs like Steve Blankenship and his student Eric Ries, among others, have come to understand that the key job of a startup is to test whether or not an idea has value. If you’ve ever heard the term “Minimum Viable Product” or MVP, that’s what this comes from. What’s the least expensive thing you could build or create that would demonstrate that your liquor popsicle/adult diapers/fantasy chess league is valuable and interesting enough that people will pay for it.

This solves a big problem that a lot of large companies in the past dealt with. They would take a business plan and borrow a bunch of money and execute it AND THEN go to market. Only when they arrived at the store with millions of dollars in debt would they discover that their Ford Pinto was a godawful car. The entrepreneurs of today posit that if you can discover that the Ford Pinto is a terrible car for a million or two instead of hundreds of millions, you’re actually saving time and money.

This leads me to a confession, whether by nature or nuture, I somehow, knowing everything above, still tend to think about the MVP as if it were a Treasure Map. To be more precise, when I sit down to do my one page business models/plans, I treat them as if it’s important that I deduce the direct route to the treasure. The problem with this, of course, is THERE IS NO PATH.

No matter how clever I am, I can’t decide the twentieth step in the plan by extrapolating from the first or second, because the entropy of clear information is too great. By the time I get to the twentieth step in my head, ANYTHING I DESIGN WILL BE BASED ON A REALITY THAT DOESN’T EXIST. The most insidious part of this kind of thinking, is that I tend to wait to do things until I’m sure I’m right, which, as you can guess, means nothing gets done.

This is my challenge in the weeks ahead. I must treat business plans as nothing more than a baseline on which to measure the truth of my most immediate ideas. I must remember it’s a HYPOTHESIS for the here and now, and not a unified theory of everything. You can’t fight Ronda what’s-her-face by guessing when the fight’s going to end, or she’ll punch you in the freaking mouth. Survey the landscape ahead, for sure. Know the terrain of the battlefield. But, fight the battle in front of you, not the one in your head.

Entering Edison

Thomas Edison is credited with saying: “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” The quote is relatively well known as it’s trotted out for most blog posts that discuss being persistent and facing failure… including this one. It’s for good reason. It took Edison nearly three years of experimenting with a wide variety of materials and thousands of designs before he realized a carbonized bamboo filament fiber that could burn for over 1200 hours.

However, I worry that when most people read this fact about Edison’s life, they externalize it and wrap it up as a cool fact that they can put on their mental shelf. Maybe I’m just projecting here, but until recently every time I heard this quote I basically saw a ten second montage in my head of Edison bopping around his laboratory to some dramatic music as if he were a teen from a terrible 1980s movie cramming for the big test that will let him play in the championship football game.

It’s tempting to try to stylize and synthesize someone else’s life experience down to some truth that we can use as sort of “lifehack”. We like to package their struggle into a discrete unit of truth that can be used like a key to unlock the doors of opportunity. Unfortunately, it never works that way. Life isn’t a movie where challenges disappear in a handful of frames to the sound of a synthy power ballad. We have to endure the solutions to our problems agonizing minute by agonizing minute.

And so did Edison. Place yourself in his body, assume his perspective and feel the building frustration with every failed prototype. Feel his exhaustion as you rest your dirty hands next to the tools on your work bench. Notice the creeping fear that enters your mind that another inventor is going to beat you to the punch, or, better yet, place yourself in the body of one of those other innovators fighting a doomed battle against Thomas Edison. Understand and feel the fact that these histories,  cemented into reality by the passage of time, were once a scary, unknown frontier. Inhabit that frontier.  Compare it to your own life and realize that other than a goofy outfit, there’s really very little difference between the substance of Thomas Edison’s experiences and yours.

Innovation and personal growth isn’t a puzzle that can be effortlessly solved with the just the right answer key. There isn’t going to be some point where you gather just the right set of hacks and perspectives and you’re instantly teleported to the solution. It’s a damn difficult path, and the only guarantee is that it’s probably going to hurt.

So the next time you hear a parable about Edison or Rockefeller or even modern day giants like Zuckerberg or Cuban, don’t externalize them. Don’t place their stories or their tips on a shelf and plan to take them down and use them when the opportunity presents itself. Internalize their perspectives and challenges. Compare them to your own. Tactics and tools can certainly speed progress down the path of your own personal growth, but perhaps the most valuable insights the successful can bring us are the emotional affirmation that the pain we face isn’t ours alone to bear and the knowledge that success is a destination we must travel to not some train we’re waiting to board.