“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
— Alan Kay
Contrary to popular belief, most successful founders don’t begin with brilliant ideas—they discover them. Facebook started as a social network for college students. Pixar started by selling high-end computers for animation. And Twitter was a podcasting company.
Facebook expanded upon the idea of social network. Pixar stayed in the same industry, but moved on to film making. Twitter changed their game completely. Similarly, Larry Page and Sergei Brin did not begin with an ingenious idea—Google was a side-project to improve library searches—but they certainly discovered one.
Most of the time, people do start with what they think is an ingenious idea, then they quickly discover that it is flawed, and then they rapidly adapt. Successful entrepreneurs think of learning the way most people think of failure.
To tell you the truth, it’s nearly impossible to predict the future, especially since the future isn’t a logical extension of the past. It’s a collection of moments yet to come, and as Peter Thiel says:
“What makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today.”
No one can produce the future exactly, but we know two things: it’s going to be different, and it’s going to be rooted in today’s world. But this knowledge alone isn’t enough to build the future.
Building the future is not something that comes naturally, since that isn’t how we are schooled. Our education system puts greater emphasis on teaching facts from the past, and then testing us in order to measure how much we’ve retained the facts.
To add to that, learning facts isn’t the same as gaining knowledge. Skills taught in schools work perfectly well for many situations, especially if you are aiming for a desk job, but they are not of much use when you are planning on doing something new, something creative, something original, something that is pre-unknowable. School education certainly doesn’t help us invent the future.
Let’s face it: the majority of us aren’t geniuses. We all cannot be Elon Musk. Genius is indeed rare, but if you are creator, you’ve got plenty of other tools in your disposal to help you create something new. The beauty of an experimental, iterative, repetitive, trial-and-error approach is that it doesn’t take a genius to achieve breakthroughs. All you have to do is be persistent, and be willing to accept failures and setbacks as you work interactively towards your goals.
You would be surprised to know just about how many successful people abide by this principles. Take Chris Rock for example. When Rock is preparing fresh material, he will first appear at small nightclubs dozens of times and test hundreds of jokes. He brings a notepad on stage and records which bits go over well and where he needs to make adjustments. The few killer lines that survive will form the backbone of his new show. While there is no doubt he has great talent, the routines he rolls out on his shows are the result of his learnings from thousands of small tests, nearly all of which fail.
This is true for almost all kinds of performers. It can be surprising that someone who has reached Chris Rock’s level of success still puts himself out there in this way, willing to fail night after night. But Rock and all other performers deeply understand that ingenious ideas almost never spring into the mind fully formed. They emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.
This is one kind of hedging, where you take small affordable risks, and balance them out with your wins. When you lose you lose small, but when you win, you win BIG. This is also how you invent the future.
In his famous book The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about a similar method—about exposing oneself to positive Black Swans (an event that comes as a surprise, and has a major effect):
“Aside from the movies, examples of positive Black Swan businesses are: some segments of publishing, scientific research, and venture capital. In these businesses, you lose small to make big. You have little to lose per book and, for completely unexpected reasons, any given book might take off. The downside is small and easily controlled.”
This practice however requires a significant shift in mindset. After all, we’ve always been taught to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs. My suggestion is, don’t analyse new ideas too much too soon, or try to hit narrow targets on unknown horizons, or put your hopes and eggs into one big bet.
Instead of trying to develop elaborate plans to predict successes, try doing small things to discover what you should actually do to achieve success. This is the same ethos with which Jeff Bezos runs Amazon.
Amazon had launched a product recommendation feature that would compare a customer’s entire purchase history with millions of other customers, and show you what items the one person with the closest matching history has bought. No one used it. “Our history is full of things like that, where we came up with an innovation that we thought was really cool, and the customers didn’t care,” Bezos says.
But there were pleasant surprises as well. When Amazon launched its Associates Program (a marketing scheme that allows other websites to earn affiliate fees by sending buyers to Amazon), it quickly exceeded expectations. About this, Bezos famously said, “You can’t put into a spreadsheet how people are going to behave around a new product.”
Both Rock and Bezos take little bets to discover the futures, and so can you. Neither of them can predict the future—so they invent it.
“Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”
If you start small, get your feet wet, and test things out without becoming too invested in a decision, you can tinker along the way. This is the advantage of taking little bets, making progress and tweaking things as you go, and approaching problems in a non-linear manner. The beauty of this method is that you don’t have to be a genius to use it—anybody can use it to unlock creative ideas.