Every day when people wake up in Silicon Valley, they get up , set eyes on their mission and get going to deliver on their vision. This btw is not only limited to California but from Tel Aviv to New Delhi and from Jakarta to Sao Polo all the places that are going places have their GSG synced to some inter galactic clock.
But California is perhaps more special. If you step through the pages of history from Steve Jobs to Bill Hewlett to Vint Cerf there was always some thing in California that seems to be missing from every where else.
At 12, Jobs wanted to build a frequency counter, but he didn’t have the parts. Ever sensible, he suspected that Bill Hewlett, then the CEO of HP, might have some extras. And so, with the bizarre confidence of an 8th grader, he found Hewlett’s number in the telephone book and called it. How many 8th graders do we now know who demonstrate those chops? For example most 8th Graders in our NA250 demographic are making tough choices on what to order on FoodPanda vs building a FoodPanda. Its not their fault, generations before them are to fault for this.
Vint Cerf was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Muriel (née Gray), a housewife, and Vinton Thurston Cerf, an aerospace executive. Cerf went to Van Nuys High School in California along with Jon Postel and Steve Crocker; Both were also instrumental in the creation of the Internet .
None of this happened by sheer luck, it happened because the galaxy came together in some mysterious way every single time each one of these events needed to place and connected a host of un-connected folks to achieve greatness, their unifier was the state of California or rather the mix it offered for success .
This is not a history lesson about California. This is a very primal review of why when you nurture people by having the right mix of education, industry and the dream to win big you continue to produce effective results.
We are ways away from replicating the success and my confidence continues to be eroded by the patrons of industry at large. On my return trip home the first tweet I saw was this:
Elon Musk is sending cars into space and the collective intellectual horsepower of the Neslte advertising/brand gurus could only come up with building the worlds largest saucepan. I am just shocked how in this day and age a corporation of that size comes up with such stupid publicity stunts. If that money was spent to make just 1 Nestle powered school it would make for better a cause.
But I digress, if you’ve ever met the brain trust at these organizations at least locally; the highlight of their career is to get to Thailand to shoot an ad. Given that kind of mis guided sense of achievement there is no wonder why their aspirational target is building F**ing saucepans. At least its moved on from buying fake likes to appease their middle managers to having promoted tweets.
This continues to happen and I don’t mean just at one brand or an other but collectively in society because we have completely missed the boat on building a conducive ecosystem.
We all get lucky. Once in a while we do something really stupid that could have resulted in death, but didn’t. Recently I saw someone who was texting while crossing the road on to oncoming traffic , narrowly avoiding the car whose driver slammed on the brakes. Post event, we realize that was not an ideal way to go about doings ones business. What can we do? We can make the most of our second chances by building margins of safety into our lives. We need to build that into our country and our ecosystems at large, ranging from education to industry to just the way we operate as human beings.
Ever notice how your fuel tank indicator goes on long before you’re really on empty? It’s the same idea. The difference between waiting until the last minute and refueling comfortably early gives us a margin of safety. We need to add that principle to our lives else the GSG dream will remain elusive for generations to come and next we will be building the biggest Karahi(wok).
Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his quote “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”
That thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy: “man muss immer umkehren” (or loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”)
Jacobi knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward some things just cant be solved backward and our predicament seems to be the same, be it companies that operate in our midst our government or policy makers and even citizens can use thinking for the net benefit of society.
Simply, if you want to improve innovation in your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you or others could do to achieve that goal. If you look at the problem by inversion, however, you’d think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds fairly straight forward. But I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today? Just like our saucepan example proved, thinking forward/innovating is not easy, but looking at the same problem from inversion should dissuade future generation of brand marketers in avoiding these kind of idiotic moves.
Despite ones best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm especially in our context. But thinking backward, call it subtractive avoidance or inversion, is less likely to cause harm hopefully.
Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, don’t get me wrong but it will help you avoid trouble or at least spot it from a mile away. You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter. It’s not sexy but it’s a very easy way to improve. For us to foster an ecosystem like California we need an industrial level Stupidity Avoidance Filter. Its an uphill task but it must start with the realization of what we are individually and collectively doing wrong as part of the society we make up. We are all at fault in some ways, saucepan guys more so than others.
So what does this mean in reality?
Spending time thinking about the opposite of what you want doesn’t come naturally to most people. And yet may of the smartest people in history, have done this naturally. So we must borrow a page from history. Hearing Vint Cerf recently the central theme of how the internet came about started with avoiding things in the past that made it difficult for communication to happen between machines, Lo and behold the invention of packet switching or the TCP/IP protocols that power every thing on the internet today.
Inversion will help improve understanding of the problem(s) at hand. By forcing you to do the work necessary to have an opinion you’re forced to consider different perspectives. We need to have opinions beyond watching talk shows and regurgitating what we see as our own brilliance. We must get into the mind set of GSG and for that to happen we need some serious inversion in our thinking.
To all the startups out there specifically, if you want to have one key take away: Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity. IMHO avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.
Brilliance comes over time, avoiding stupidity shouldn’t.