Here’s the fantasy: that the thing that just popped into your head is gold.
In fact, this is one of the most dangerous and self-destructive delusions we harbor. That we will walk into a room full of people who have done this longer than we have and dazzle them with our brilliant ideas. Or not even ideas, but dazzle them while spitballing. That as an outsider, we possess such an elixir of freshness and ingenuity that what is opaque to everyone else, is immediately clear to us.
I wish it was cool like that, but it never seems to be.
Why? Because you—and I—are not geniuses.
Get over it. The first thing that pops into your head is not revolutionary. Your idea about what Google, Apple, Bill Belichick, HBO, Elon Musk, et al should do is likely wrong and unfeasible—and worse, not even original. I promise you this. I promise.
No. Real contributions come from taking the time to develop a deep understanding of everything at play and more often than not, coming up with gradual improvements and suggestions. On the road to real achievement or influence, half your ideas get thrown away. More than half deserve to be thrown away. Smart people know that, assholes forget.
I think about this line from Richard Feynman a lot:
See, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it really means to know something. And therefore, I see how it is that they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it—they haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know how this stuff is done and they are intimidating people by it.
That’s the irony. It’s that the notion of a flash of genius and inspiration deters the humble and reflective types who never feel fully secure with their ideas, even when they are right. Ignorance bluffs knowledge into hesitating, and then beats it to the punch.
Of course everything about internet culture and technology enables this kind of self-deception. Social networks ask: What are you thinking? Never: What do you know? When nothing stops us from publishing, we confuse saying something with having something worth saying. We’re never accountable, but immediately validated.
No wonder we can’t judge our own ideas with any sort of objectivity.
Let’s lay it out. Perhaps there is some vaunted genius out there whose every thought is mind-blowing. That person is not you.
In my case, I’ve been called into rooms and expected to be that guy. Get the kid in here, they’d say. I’d do my best and sometimes it’d even go well. They’d definitely paid me a lot of money. But nothing ever comes of this except hype and the illusion of progress. It’s just jerking a bunch of people off around a conference table. Because I’m not that genius either. No one is.
So what to do? Accept that everything is perfect and you’re not smart enough to question it? Of course not.
The bitter little pill that we are not geniuses does not change another hard reality. That most of our institutions are broken and the status quo is not even close to the best it could be. That others have accepted ‘the way things have always been done’ for no reason at all. That things can and should be disrupted.
It’s just not going to happen like you think. And it definitely won’t be as easy as you like.
Incumbents are usually aware that they have a problem. They admit their flaws. They just don’t know what to do about it—or worse, they’ve accepted a logic that explains these problems as being endemic and unavoidable. There is always a “because…”
Everything has a logic, you know. Your startup idea, which seems too simple and brilliant, probably violates well-accepted reasoning from dozens of smart individuals and industries. Why do they think things need to be this way? Why have they deliberately not done things this different way? You don’t think you’re the first one to think of this, do you? The question isn’t: why hasn’t anyone else thought of this? It’s: why have they written it off?
Your job is to fully understand this line of thought. It takes time to understand and wrap your head around the space you want to be successful in–to know why the restaurant industry ticks, or how banks work or why the market seems to favor one product over another. You need to learn this, you need to figure out what’s going on above and beneath the surface–so you don’t wreck yourself on obstacles hidden or in plain sight.
It’s not just business either. So you’re outraged about police abuse or prosecutorial misconduct–we don’t need another blog post from you. And I promise whatever you pulled from Nate Silver is still just surface level. What we need from you is to take the time to figure out why people behave the way they do, what incentives they are responding to, and how that can be changed.
The key is to to empathize with the hidden logic without adopting it. The person who will actually fix old problems or do new things has to be wise and rigorous enough to understand that the immediate and obvious solutions have already been considered, mined and found lacking. So that they may transcend that resistance and the problems that come along with it.
Improvement comes from rigor and discipline. From humility and understatement. It comes from practices, checklists, from methods, systems and the scientific method. It comes from staying up late reading, not blogging. It comes from having deep connections with a handful of smart people who push you to be better, not networking. It comes from separating ideas from your identity—so you can pick up, discard, pick up, rearrange, discard and pick them up at whim.
All this takes time. That is, it can’t be done in real-time. So be patient and quiet and do the work. Read the books. Check the experiments and put in the care. Only then you start to know what it really means to know something. Then you can change things. Then you will wow people—not with ideas but with actions. With results.