My niece reminds me what it means to be a “Real” Artist
This weekend I got to spend time with my niece for her birthday - she just turned 6. Today in the afternoon, when we were hanging out, at one point she asked me if I wanted to be an artist with her, and I said “Sure!”.
She got me some paper, and a box of markers, pencil crayons, glue and scissors. To start off with, I drew an elephant on the page. I was pretty happy with it… and she said “That’s good Coco” (my nickname), “but why don’t you be a real artist!? A real artist - with glue, and with scissors, and with different ways to use the paper! Like me!”
What you should know about my niece is that she really is a real artist! I’ve seen her draw something, curl the paper up into a ball, tape it up until its hard as a diamond, sprinkling glitter all the while taping, and finally putting it in the freezer for a couple of hours. Why she would put it in the freezer for a few hours, I have no idea, part of her mad artist process which she found on her own - but one thing that became clear today is that she helped me remember what it means to be a real artist.
The aim of the real artist is to explore the medium you’re working in, to test the limits, to ask what you can do with a single piece of paper. This lessons extends to all the mediums we find ourselves working in, it’s a call to question the boundaries of those canvases, and their function. Sure I could just draw on the paper, but instead I could think of entirely new ways of using the tools I’ve been given, trying to be unexpected, trying to find a new form of expression. What can you possibly do with what you’ve been given? How can you mix things together in unexpected ways? I’d rather do that. So I thank her for that reminder. Here’s a photo of what I came up with at the end: all one piece of paper, and, most importantly, she approved.
Unhappy and In Flow
I believe that there are two kinds of happinesses. One of them is a deception, and an easy trap. I’ve seen this false happiness in my life, and in the lives of intelligent people that I care a great deal about.
You may be familiar with the notion of Flow introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the field of positive psychology. I should say upfront that I have never read any of his work, and only seen secondary materials and presentations - so my evaluation is not of his work in particular, but about the principle that I’ve understood it to promote, and a certain style of living that I’ve seen people pursue. The idea of Flow proposes that the process of mastering a skill, and application of that mastery, can bring one into a zone, a flow, being singularly focused, and this state of concentrated application (this state of always being at the limit of your comfort zone) can produce feelings of satisfaction and happiness.
I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that doing something, and excelling at that thing, can produce immense satisfaction. I have no doubt that if you interview people who have achieved extreme mastery and who apply their skill regularly they will say that they are often in flow, and that they are subsequently happy. But, flow is the happiness that I consider to be deception, it is the happiness that I do not want to fall for, to settle for.
For anyone that has experienced flow, the feeling of excelling at something, the feeling of becoming better at something - of making how good you are matchup with how good you want to be - it is incredibly rewarding. But I don’t think that this reward is enough. Flow brings us feelings of satisfaction, but, these are bursts of satisfaction, short-lived - each one feeding off the last, and hungry for the next. This type of happiness lives only on inertia, on the ability to once again enter the state of flow. Heads down chasing, like fiends we search for the next fix, we slip into the next fix, eager to improve, eager to produce, not willing to ask why we should do the things we do.
My fear is unreflective flow. It is scary because it is so habitual, so gratifying in its simplicity, and so damn easy to go with the flow. Think of the soldier who has mastered killing, who has perfected the craft of murdering others. It may well be the case that they have entered the state of flow. But, to what end?
Of course this is hyperbole - but my point is that while we can achieve short-term fixes through mastery and improvement of our skills, the unreflective application of those abilities, the lack of questioning what skills to pursue, and why, and where to apply them - no beyond that - even the premise that happiness in life is primarily about mastering skills seems wrong, seems like a deception.
In my own life, I would say that I experience some forms of flow often. I’ve worked with a medium intensity at becoming a better designer, and developer over the years. Now, I have gotten to the point where often the things I produce at least don’t make me ashamed. More than that, my initial instinct is to eagerly apply these skills everywhere: to passionately design and develop anything that comes along. I can enter a state of flow constructing a complex technical system, without any care for what the system achieves in the real world. I can passionately redesign a better television. I can produce, arrange, and structure things, without asking why, without looking for value, without searching too long for meaning. With the improvement of your skills, also comes passion, also comes the longing to apply those skills. But, with the improvement of your skills should also come caution and responsibility.
Somedays I get caught up working on something, I’ll work the entire day passionately, I’ll accomplish a good deal … and then at the end of the day I’ll be left with a sinking feeling: what have I done? I’ve wasted time, I did not question what it is that I was doing, I did the wrong things, I did not question what this means for who I am, for what I want to do, for what I should do - I have lacked self-respect. That is a wasted day, but it would be more frightening to wake up from a longer period of flow, and remorsefully ask: what have I done? why have I done this? how much time have I lost heads down in flow getting my fix?
To me this type of diving in flow state make me feel manic - when I’m in these states I stop thinking about the people and the world around me. I am not really deliberate, only pretending to be deliberate. I need to have flow (maybe), but I also need to be very careful when deciding in which directions to flow. There are things beyond flow that I think are more essential to happiness.
Embrace flow, but question it, do not just go along.
Happiness is not unreflective. Happiness does not need a fix. Happiness loves, and more importantly expresses it’s love for people.
(If ever you’re in flow, and you don’t feel those things.. then it’s time to stop for a second and look where you’re going.)
Apple Laptops w/ Embedded 4G Chips
Something I’ve wondered for a while now is why Apple doesn’t offer 3G/4G chips embedded into their Macbook Air and MacBook Pro products. If they had the chips built in, they could offer monthly subscription plans priced on a data usage basis.
Having just travelled this past week, and paying for wifi usage at various locations ( included in the hotel but not at all airports ) I can’t help but feel that I would pay for this service, as would many others - and that with some sort of agreement between Apple and the carriers it could be a major cash cow for both.
I wonder if the sheer amount of load this might place on the existing 3G/4G infrastructure is one of the reasons they haven’t offered this to date.
Canadian Entrepreneurs and VCs - Focus on What Canada Does Best: Mining
There’s a fundamental problem with Canadian tech entrepreneurship: many of the brightest Canadian entrepreneurs leave to the United States to start their companies. If you’re looking to start the next Facebook or Instagram, starting in Canada doesn’t seem like the best proposition for your business. The benefits of starting a company in America seem clear: larger market, more top-tier talent, more funding, and being in a country that’s the leader across many domains. If you want to be the best, you need to be amongst the best (or at least it helps to be).
So for both American and Canadian investors, there’s this question of: “Why should I invest in a company based out of Canada - what are the benefits? Shouldn’t they operate primarily in the US if they can?”. Of course, you can have your headquarters based in Canada and deal in the American market, but as I’ve heard investors say in the past: “What’s the point of that? If they were serious they’d just move to the States”.
I think their line of reasoning makes sense to a large extent. For me to want to start my company in Canada, or to want to invest in a Canadian company, there needs to be a clear reason why it would be beneficial to do so from a business standpoint. Often, most of the reasons that draw me back to Canada are personal, rather than business oriented. I am myself a Canadian entrepreneur, and I started my first company in the States. I originally moved out to Seattle to work at Microsoft, started a company in Seattle and then relocated to NYC. I think of moving back to Canada in the long-run, but since I want to eventually start another company, I know that doing it in Canada would be more difficult, and the expected returns on my effort would likely be smaller. Given that it’s already incredibly hard to start a successful company, why would I try to do it in Canada and add additional friction to the process?
So, the question then becomes, are there some industries where there is actually less friction in Canada than in the States? What are areas where Canada can be a market leader in terms of technology, and where can there be clear competitive advantages for tech entrepreneurs to remain in Canada?
This question is similar to the one that e-commerce site Fab asked themselves when they were deciding where to pivot:
Dream again. “We asked ourselves, If we could do anything, what would we do?” says Goldberg. “Then we asked three questions: What are we most passionate about? What are we good at? Where is there an underserved market? The answer was design, design, design.”
In the case of Canada, I have an answer I think could be given to all 3 (with a bit of imagination): Natural Resources and Mining
What are we good at?
Canada is one of the global leaders when it comes to natural resources and mining. America and other countries may be good candidate for exploring this industry as well, but if Canada focuses and specializes around this, they could have competitive advantages
Where is there an underserved market?
Better software in the natural resources and mining space … my guess is not too many designers and computer science students are thinking about this. I’ll list some high-level problems that come to mind to be solved given my limited knowledge of the domain.
What are we passionate about?
Certainly mining may seem a bit unsexy at first, but I’m guessing that once you enter the domain it could be quite interesting - especially because it feels so unexplored. More effective mining can solve real problems, and create real value - and I think that resonates with most entrepreneurs.
I’ve talked with a few friends about this, including a breakfast session I had this morning with another entrepreneur whose current job involves helping retain Canadian entrepreneurs and who has ties to the mining industry. Given those conversations, I decided to take a bit of time and actually get these preliminary thoughts writing.
I think investors investing in Canadian companies, and entrepreneurs choosing to build their companies back home, would do well to have a clear investment thesis about competitive advantages in Canada. It could be that mining is an industry that is likely ripe for software disruption. As Marc Andreesen puts it, "software is eating the world" , and I think mining might be an appetizing next meal.
A Canadian VC focused on exploring the theme of mining in the software sector, that supports high-tech entrepreneurs who want to explore that domain, could do exceptionally well. A great start would be if a VC could offer potential entrepreneurs, who may not know that much about the mining industry, the opportunity to partner with domain experts like professors in the mining industry, or even to work closely with the mining companies that are already building software so that they could do some exploratory research on the state of the industry
Why I think mining is ripe for disruption (in Canada)
Full disclosure: I don’t know all that much about the mining industry, but this are just my high level cursory thoughts.
The Ugly Duckling
It’s unsexy, requires domain expertise, and likely requires a lot of schlep as well: all things both Peter Theil and Paul Graham identify as being filters that prevent most software entrepreneurs from seeing the readily available problems to be solved there. This means that if you took some talented developers and designers, who bring best practices from other software domains, and partnered them with sufficient domain expertise and connections, they could likely be a disruptive force. The fact that most software developers and designers are not thinking about this space makes the barriers from competition lower!
Big Data + Design
The two problems that most readily spring to mind when I think of mining are prospecting (i.e. analyzing large data sets from surveys to determine if the land is a good choice for development), and scheduling of resources (i.e. you have a wide diversity of different types of mining techniques, and different tools needed for different terrains etc. - how do you effectively allocate and schedule all your employees and machinery - I know a bit about this having worked on Microsoft Project which is a scheduling tool). Both of these problems seem to rely on being able to deal with large data sets, and extract signals from noise out of those data sets. They are both statistical optimization problems of different forms. One company, Goldcorp, who was struggling, open-sourced their survey data (not at all standard at the time in the mining industry) and ran a challenge open to everyone in order to use new techniques to identify promising prospects - this turned out to be an amazing success for them, as the new methods employed uncovered large swathes of new, previously unnoticed targets (http://www.bullnotbull.com/archive/wikinomics.html).
At present, big data has potential to transform countless industries, as the infrastructure (e.g. databases, distributed computing etc.) are coming into place, along with the mathematical methods, to actually draw useful knowledge from the otherwise useless abundance of data we’re now collecting.
On the design side of things, I just have this gut feeling that the people designing software for the mining industry, and also the people designing the processes that are used in mining as a whole, are not currently setting the highest bar in terms of design. So, I think there is a real opportunity for design thinking, and process analysis, to also be a disruptive element in this domain.
My former cofounder @kareemamin and I have talked about it at length, and Paul Graham even wrote an article about it, but it definitely feels like there’s an impending boom in the hardware space, because a lot of the right ingredients are coming together.
It’s becoming easier to design and manufacture hardware components, and the idea of Hardware + APIs is becoming more pervasive. The idea of sensors + APIs is one I’m particularly interested in. In the mining space there’s a real opportunity to explore new surveying technology, and to automate mining with the use of robots.
There’s actually also probably a lot of interesting opportunities in the mobile + tablet space as well, given the remote nature of the work.
The Industry is Large, and has High Growth
In Canada alone the mining industry accounts for about $57.4 billion of Canada’s GDP (2011), and had a growth rate of 4.5% between 2010 to 2011, versus the overall growth rate of 2.5% for Canada’s GDP as a whole. Also, mining is something that I’m guessing is booming as an industry worldwide, and so the software you build in Canada has definite room for international expansion.
Canada Has a Good Mix of Tech Talent + Mining Domain Expertise We have a healthy mining industry big mining companies are here, and domain expertise is here.
"Canada’s wealth in natural resources places it in a unique global position. We are second highest in terms of the production rate of nickel, third in platinum, aluminum and diamond, and fifth in zinc. We also are host to 19 percent of the world’s exploration spending – compared to 12 percent in Australia and eight percent in the United States." (http://www.canadiangovernmentexecutive.ca/article/?nav_id=988)
I do think there is an interesting question though of how much of the overall value being generated by the mining industry software companies could capture (i.e. it may not be that much, and this whole hypothesis may be wrong then :) ).
Here’s a list of some of the larger mining companies in the world from Forbes
Problems to Solve in Mining
- Surverying/Prospecting (both hardware and techniques for doing it, and software for analyzing the data)
- Buying/claiming a stake in land (how do you do this digitally?)
- Scheduling + Resource Allocation
- Mobile + Tablet Applications for employees in the field.
- Regulation + Environmental Compliance Software
- Automatic Mining (robots for surveying and for the actual extraction of resources)
- Waste Removal ‘The waste removal and placement is a major cost to the mining operator and to facilitate detailed planning the detailed geological and mineralisation characterization of the waste material forms an essential part of the geological exploration program.’ (Wikipedia)
- Sale and Refinement of what is mined (didn’t read too much about this, but guessing there’s many problems to be solved here to.
There are likely many other industries that Canada may be well equipped to tackle and focus on from a software perspective. I don’t know all that much about the mining/natural resource industries, and have no good sense of how large software businesses in the space could become.
With any of these industries, it would be interesting to see from a VC’s perspective why they think the particular industry is a good bet for software businesses, and why Canada may be well positioned to take it on. It’s interesting to think about these other industries as well, and about how Canada can create compelling opportunities for software entrepreneurs based on Canada’s competitive advantages.
Dear Future Techstars
Almost two years ago, I participated in Techstars Seattle, an intense 3-month incubator program for early stage companies. While I was cleaning my house a few days ago, I came across a letter that we were asked to write to future Techstars members the day after the program ended. It was interesting to re-read it, and the advice still applies and resonates with me :
———- (made a few grammar edits) ———-
Dear Future Techstars,
I’m writing to you from a very hungover post-demo day. You will also one day be sitting having breakfast, after 3 months of a roller-coaster you could not imagine. This morning the sensation is exactly like when the roller-coaster pulls in, the car has that final kickback (that was last night), and then the sound of the air pressure releasing and the restraint bar rising to let you go. You don’t remember the ride too long, and it’s hard to describe, but you’ve got that exhilaration knowing that something amazing just happened, and now it’s all about deciding what ride to go on next.
So what can I tell you about the ride? I guess my one piece of advice is balance. Don’t be all fire, because what you’re doing now is your life. Andy said it somewhere in the program, and it was the best advice: this is your life, live it how you want it to be lived. And remember, everyone else is living their lives too.
All the best,
Never Delegate Understanding
The famous American designer, architect, and filmmaker Charles Eames, once said that we should “Never delegate understanding”. I watched the documentary Eames: Painter and Architect recently, and got the sense that it was through the process of actually working meticulously with the materials and tools he had available to him, and understanding their constraints, that Eames came to innovate his craft.
I think there is something essential to this idea of never delegating understanding. It’s almost a way of approaching things authentically, that captures the immense value inherent in having a deep understanding of a subject: it’s assumptions, and principles. When trying to innovate, more often than not new ideas don’t materialize out of nowhere. Instead, most valuable ideas accumulate gradually, from the process of actually committing yourself to a deep understanding and exploration of the systems, tools, and activities of your craft. Trying to use tools which build on certain basic principles that you don’t yet understand, while glossing over the fundamentals of a subject, is likely to limit your potential for truly meaningful innovation.
Not having a deep understanding is also likely to make your life tougher in the long run: eventually there will come a point where you will have to use those tools for purposes that they were not originally intended for, and when that happens you won’t have sufficient understanding to adapt those tools to your novel needs.
This difficulty of adapting things when you don’t really understand them, and the frustration of trying to do so, is something I believe many people will sympathize with from past experience.
In general, I believe, that there are two ways to give people power to create and innovate:
1. Abstraction - making tools that hide the workings of their more complex internals (i.e. building more powerful tools)
2. Understanding - teaching people the fundamental principles of how systems and tools work, so they can leverage that knowledge to build new tools, and adapt existing ones.
The two should co-exist. But, too much abstraction, and not enough knowledge, makes people feel like tools are magical… and in many ways - too ‘magical’ to truly understand.
It seems to me that right now, in the world of web programming, we’re doing a lot better on the abstraction front than we are doing on the teaching front. Even though our tools are constantly improving, and we’re coming up with better and better abstractions, not enough people really understand how those tools work. I think that lack of understanding is actually slowing them down, and also preventing them from being able to truly innovate.
Frameworks like Rails, and other abstractions, are often making things to mystical, or ‘assumed to be fool-proof’, while the knowledge of how these tools work is not being communicated adequately enough.
This makes them seem more magical and ultimately intimidating to people than needs to be
the case. People look at some framework code, and see something like: “show website”, and have no idea how that one line of code “show website” is able to generate their entire website
(of course this is a ludicrous example, but maybe not so far away from the sensation I had in early experiences with web programming).
People are afraid to ask about the basics, because they may be afraid that their questions sound stupid, when in fact the questions they have are likely the right questions to be asking.
When people don’t understand the basic assumptions the tools they use encapsulate, they don’t have the ability to question those basic assumptions - and to really ask: “Is this the best way that things could be done?” They accept the wisdom of the crowd, and assume that the current tool is the best tool available, because otherwise a better tool would have already been made - this type of belief is what makes people feel complacent, and unempowered.
I encountered this not too long ago when I started working on my first startup: The Shared Web (formerly called PerpetualP :( … yah didn’t think about that name too much). The idea there was to make a site where you could see at any given time where on the internet all your friends are browsing. From a technological perspective, this posed the problem of many thousands of concurrent connections. I began to think about why the Internet was so focused on pull and polling mechanisms rather than push. I also started looking at Apache a bit more closely (this was in late 2009), and realized that it may have some big limitations. I had this feeling like Apache may not be the best server solution possible for particular types of web programming - but at the same time I had a feeling that… well… if that was the case, surely someone else would have built a better server by now - there’s a reason everyone uses Apache! It’s true that there’s usually a reason that people use a particular tool: history, convention, availability - but it’s likely rarely because that tool is the best way to do that thing. I fell victim to what we might call the “Pangloss” innovation syndrome - where I just assumed things were as great as they could be. Eventually, I found this article about the C10K problem, and realized that other people were thinking about this same thing. I then found out about NodeJS, and saw that people like Ryan Dahl were already questioning some of the fundamental assumptions web servers like Apache were built upon. My assumption that the way things are done is the best way they can be done was unfounded, and doing this deeper research was an important step in boosting my confidence and encouraging me to always trust my questions.
In my philosophy courses at university, we would try to translate arguments we read in terms of their assumptions, and conclusions, (A, B, and C, therefore D), and then try to see if there were problems with any of the assumptions that would render them false (e.g. A is not a valid assumption because of Y). In most fields, this refutation of basic assumptions is often how innovation happens, and that’s why it’s important to dig deep and understand and question those assumptions (while still being able to use things at a higher level, and appreciating the value of employing existing abstractions). It also helps to unearth what are the sometimes ‘hidden’ assumptions that are being made - and those ‘hidden’ assumptions are often the best opportunities for innovation.
But, getting back to abstraction and understanding. In the case of web programming, I think what’s missing on the understanding front is high-quality, freely available documentation about the fundamentals of how web stacks work, what frameworks are, etc. These can be written even in the form of questions and answers, so that we highlight and answer the basic questions some people are afraid to ask (e.g. how does the Internet work at a deeper level in terms of the TCP/IP stack). I’m also a big believer in teaching the history of a subject, because I think that seeing the history of how a subject/approach evolved makes things seem much simpler, and removes the feeling that the people building the tools and abstractions we use were on some other mental level (more often than not they were reacting to immediate questions/needs that emerged).
Now, it may be that I haven’t googled enough, but I think that there’s really not a lot of great documentation on some of the most basic concepts in web programming. At least they’re not compiled in a nicely presented format. I’ve taken time to sit with a few developers + designers recently to talk about this feeling, and also in some cases to also explain some of these core concepts to them. From those I talked to a bit, I can see that many shared this experience of having to sort of figure things out on your own. I can also already see that having some of those basic questions answered has had a big impact in terms of their confidence when programming, and their general sense that things are no longer mystical incantations (e.g. Rails Magic). They understand the tools they are using, and have a sense of how they were made - and this makes them feel empowered, it makes them feel like they can build their own tools too. The deeper you go, the more fearless, and confident you become.
I think a good learning curve for web developers may be something like:
1. Explain the basics of web-programming at a high level (e.g. how servers, browsers, and frameworks work)
2. Let people start using a framework like Rails, and explain to them how the pieces of Rails correspond to the overall framework concepts
3. As an exercise, then have them try to roll their own framework, server, etc. - just for educational purposes - to learn about the tradeoffs that are made, and to think deeply about what’s really going on.
This is the path I went down, and I feel I benefited from doing this … well except that we ended up using the framework I built in 3 in an actual production environment for The Shared Web (which maybe wasn’t the best idea, even though the site didn’t go down too often).
Having talked to a few people who have participated in Hacker School - it sounds like that’s the general approach they take too: immersing people in the code - and you can see the difference it makes when talking to people who come out of the program. So it looks like some organizations are taking this approach. People become less afraid of going deep - and that’s a great thing.
One of the things I’d like to do in the coming months is to spend some time putting together some lessons on the basics of web stacks, and web frameworks. Here’s a few topics I think are important, and I’d love to hear if you guys have other suggestions, or things you wish people told you:
Figure out what a Web Framework is.
Understand the principles of Model-View-Controller.
Understand what a Web Server is.
Understand the different ways that routing can be done:
- At the server level, at the language level with a front-controller approach (etc.)
Understanding the idea of the client-server model in principle (e.g. many databases run as services).
Explaining the concepts of the HTTP protocol, APIs, REST,
How Source Control Systems Work and why we use them.
Shells, and Shell Scripting
(As a side note, I was talking to our Systems Director recently, and he was saying that the basic principles of how things work, and how to do things when it comes to data centers, and scaling sites is even less well documented - some documentation there would be great too.)
Looking forward to your feedback. Never delegate understanding, and dive in fearlessly.
To steal a metaphor from E.L. Doctorow, “[Interaction Design] is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can still get to your destination”. When a task seems too big, start by picking two things, like a page and a button. Establish their relationship and interaction. Once that is done, pick something else that relates and keep going. Everything will come together thanks to the brain’s natural ability to spatially model the world.
Why Peter Theil is Half-Wrong
Peter Theil, cofounder of Pay Pal and current venture capitalist believes that innovation is currently stagnating across most fields except for computers. We’re making progress in the digital world, but stalling in the physical world - in the real world. In his own words:
"Whether we look at transportation, energy, commodity production, food production, agro-tech, nanotechnology — that with the exception of computers, we’ve had tremendous slowdown,"
The argument he makes is that certain movements such as environmentalism, increasing risk aversion, and government regulation have been the primary impediments to innovation:
"I believe we are in a world where innovation in stuff was outlawed. It was basically outlawed in the last 40 years — part of it was environmentalism, part of it was risk aversion," he says. "And all the engineering disciplines that had to do with stuff have basically been outlawed one by one."
In general, I agree with this perspective that government regulation is an obstacle to innovation in many fields: e.g. think healthcare, material engineering, financial sector, etc. But, I think that regulation is probably only a small part of the reason there is so much innovation in the realm of the digital, and so little in the realm of the physical.
From an economic perspective, labor and capital is going to where there are the greatest returns - and the greatest value that we can obtain right now is collecting more information, organizing it, and making it easier to access. Imagine you were doing research before the Internet and the World Wide Web were developed - you wouldn’t have had easy, realtime access to the huge troves of research and new ideas appearing around the world (research papers, brief ideas expressed on twitter, ted talks). Just consider how much easier it is to obtain answers to any questions that you may have a whim to know the answers to. So, having seen the powerful transformation of information availability experienced over the last 20 years, and realizing that so much more can be done, at a macroeconomic level it seems to make sense that more time should be spent on building the information platform that will make research in all those other fields much easier. The benefits from organizing information and making it accessible trickle down to all fields, and I think that cross discipline benefit is actually the motive that is causing there to be more innovation in the digital realm than in the physical. Not to mention the power that is continuously gained from improved computing power, and algorithms, that allows analysis of ever lager models and data sets.
Now, there are questions about whether the type of innovation that has been happening on the Internet of late falls into this category. But, I think there’s no doubt that new data is being made available through applications like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare that create new possibilities for the types of research that can be conducted.
A country’s power (both economic and military) is to a large extent dictated by it’s ability to improve the accessibility, organization and transmission of information. The more efficient it’s informational capabilities, the more the engine of economic growth is revved up. Rich Barton, the founder of Expedia, Glassdoor, and Zillow, gave a talk during the Techstars program I participated in - and he said his goal is to democratize information and help people make decisions. All his businesses follow this thread, and so do his investment decisions seemingly. I think that’s a good frame for evaluating what companies are worth working on.
The Deception of Difficulty
I remember when I was growing up, roughly around the fifth grade, I would occasionally hear older people mention the field of TRIGONOMETRY.
What an awe-inspiring word that is to a fifth grader. It makes them shudder in their seat trying to imagine what such an impassable realm of thought might contain. There was an aura about it that suggested it would be some sort of mental and spiritual transcendence. Then - a few years later - in the glorious awakening - it turned out to be triangles - fucking…. triangles….. three-lines connected at three points. (slow clap)
Throughout my life, I’ve always marveled at what the next level of life and of knowledge would hold. And, upon climbing to that next level, I have almost always been met with disappointment. The next level of knowledge to be attained, the next experience to be had, always turned out to be somewhat less magical than I expected. The times when I did feel a sense of magic while attaining new knowledge came not from the difficulty of its content, but instead from its surprising simplicity. Far too often society has a tendency to take simple things, and veil them in difficulty - to make things seem harder than they actually are.
Let me be clear and say that this post is not me trying to be arrogant. On the contrary, what I am trying to get across is that sometimes people are deceived into being impressed by certain realms of knowledge, which, when explained with clarity, actually turn out to be far less complicated than they’re portrayed to be. Most of the sciences fall into this category - and this is unfortunate.
I believe that one of the greatest ails of society is making things seem more difficult than they actually are. There is an immense disservice that we do to ourselves, collectively, by instilling in our shared consciousness the belief that certain realms of thought are inaccessible to the majority of the population. Exaggerating and mythologizing the achievements of our great thinkers and their works does nothing but to provide us with a sense of awe, that in turn demoralizes the ambition of too many capable individuals.
Most magic is not as magical as it may seem.
So, why does this happen? Why do realms of though like math and computer science get veiled in mystery? I’m not sure, but here are what I think some of the causes are:
A tradeoff between accuracy and interestingness.
Often times it is more ‘interesting’ to portray something as excessively complex, to portray someone as a genius, rather than to be accurate about the true contents of the subject, or the individual.
Laziness or Bad Teachers - Leading to More Bad Teachers
Deceptions occur when people cast something as difficult because they did not take the time to understand it, or because they had a teacher who did not have clarity themselves. When people don’t understand something, they try to make it seem more complicated than it actually is. This leads to a vicious cycle where people who don’t understand, end up teaching others, making it seem even more difficult to their successors.
Starting at the wrong place
Sometimes, basics of a given topic, and its assumptions, are not adequately covered, and people are recommended to start too deep. This is manifested in the lack of history that is used to teach many topics - for example, we learn calculus without learning how it came about, without grasping what problems it was intended to solve. Seeing how problems and their solutions unfold is probably the best way to learn, but this happens rarely.
Wanting to Sound Distinguished
When something is simple, but people want to seem important and indispensable, they wrap simple concepts in words and language that make those concepts difficult to distill. This achieves their desire to sound distinguished, but harms the ability for others to get to the root of things.
The consequence of all this is that people approach new fields of knowledge with two things: fear, and an expectation for magic.
The fear is unfortunate, because it scares many people off before they even begin. It makes people discount their own abilities, and leads them to strive for less than they are actually capable of achieving. How many people have shied away from math all together because they were made to feel like they could not understand it? Perhaps, it was those who were teaching them that did not understand.
The expectation of magic is unfortunate, because it leads people to constantly question themselves, and their comprehension of the subject they are studying. It is a disillusionment and questioning after the fact of comprehension. When something turns out to not be as complicated, or as magical, as it was portrayed to be, they are not sure if they actually understand it. This type of disillusioned self-doubt leads to listlessness, and a lack of certainty in one’s own uncertainty. People are quicker to question their own deficiencies if something doesn’t make sense, rather than question the thing which does not make sense. We should constantly question the assumptions and contents of what we learn - if something doesn’t make sense, we should examine its basis with honesty. It could well be that you are right, and the material is wrong - so take a moment to consider this possibility. Be bold.
I do believe that there is substantial value gained by making things seem less magical, and in turn more attainable. It would be empowering for people to know that things are not as far out of reach as they may think. This applies to experiences as much as it does to knowledge. Although the next realm of knowledge you dive into, or the next life experience, turns out to be less magical than you thought it would be, it just means that there is more possibility for you to now make real magic, to try to locate that subtle process through which true magic is made.