Author: Farnam Street

The Power of Questions

The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask. Here’s how to improve your questions.

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When we run our once-a-year Re:Think Europe event, 10 participants work with us for a month before the event to hone their questions. This is the most intense event we run for a reason. Each person brings a problem or challenge to the table for others to help with. Participants research each other’s problems before the event. Before they even show up, refining and iterating the questions often helps the participants make huge leaps forward.

As a society, we tend to focus a lot on answers. Answers are solutions to problems. We tend to give less prestige to questions. Everyone has them. They’re easy. It’s the answers that take the work.

This overlooks the power of questions. Asking questions gives you a better understanding of everything: the situation you are in, the challenges you are facing. Life.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class in university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”

Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid [read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Asking questions means you want to learn. You want to understand and know. So where do you start? Anywhere you want. But don’t feel pressure to begin with the big questions, the ones we all confront at one time or another, like the meaning of life, or what exists beyond our physical experience of earth. There is a significant amount to be learned from the seemingly mundane ones, questions that seem so basic, once we reach about age 12 we no longer bother asking them—because we either think we know the answer or are afraid of admitting we don’t.

Consider the following three questions:

  1. What is a horse?
  2. What is green?
  3. What is a point in time?

At first glance, these don’t seem difficult. They’re grade school stuff. But these are actually really hard questions that can show us how much is to be gained from asking them.

First, what is a horse? Most people will list the physical characteristics that horses have in common, saying, “A horse has four legs, and a mane, and you can ride it.” This is definitely true of some horses, but we would reasonably consider a three-legged horse still a horse. And a horse doesn’t cease to be a horse if it can’t be ridden. It doesn’t become some other animal.

There is, I think, some component of DNA that is the same for all horses, a bit of code that tells the cells to form the horse. So why don’t we reference a specific gene sequence when we are explaining what a horse is? Because it wouldn’t in any way communicate what we mean by the word horse. Horses have properties that relate to our experience of them. The problem is, they all don’t have the same properties.

So what we do is fix a vague concept in our minds of horseness. It can’t be an image, because then it would be a specific horse, and it can’t be explicitly defined because we wouldn’t encompass the whole category. So we keep it at a fuzzy level that, despite its lack of precision, is extremely useful when we have to communicate in any way about horses. The abstract concept must stay abstract to retain its utility.

So, are you being pedantic when you ask, “What is a horse?” Not at all. You’re actually doing something very important. You are assessing the understanding of the person you are talking to in reference to yours. And you discover that it’s never going to be a perfect match.

As for the second question, what is green? This one is definitely more painful. The easy answer is, a color. But that’s not a good answer, for what is a color? A quality that objects possess? Ooh cool. Where can I get some of this quality? Ah. Nowhere. Green is a quality that does not exist outside of the objects that possess it.

There is no place you can see green without seeing something being green. How unfair is this? I know green. I see it all the time. But it is not a thing I can hold. A change in the way my eyes process light and there could cease to be green [related: How do you know that you know what you know?]. But greenness would always be out there, a property of the interaction of light and molecules that can be so vivid but doesn’t actually exist on its own.

Does this make asking, “What is green?” a waste of time? No. Wanting to get a handle on the fundamentals is never a waste of time. You can learn what you can influence and what you cannot. In this case you learn that you can change the color of an object, but you have no powers when it comes to color itself.

Finally, what is a point in time? This one really hurts. First, we should ask what is a point? Conveniently, Euclid provided some definitions over 2000 years ago.

  1. A point is that which has no part.
  2. A line is length without breadth.
  3. A surface is that which has length and breadth only.

From this, we can conclude that a point has neither length nor breadth. That’s okay. It’s just this thing, and if you connect two of them with length you get a line. Euclid also said, “The extremities of lines are points.” It all works. Conceptually, it makes sense. I can wrap my head around it enough to do basic geometry. Great.

But if you actually think about it, your brain could explode. A point has neither length nor breadth? Then what does it have? It has to have something, in order to be something, doesn’t it? But anything that occupies space must have length and breadth, however infinitesimal. Since points have neither, they cannot occupy space. But then how can they form the ends of lines? How can they be?

The same thing happens when we try to conceive of a point in time. It’s something we all get. We say things like “going forward” as if there is a specific moment that we can measure all other moments against. But how exactly would you describe a moment in time? To say that implies that there are many moments, all of which could be distinguished from each other. But can they be? What fills the space between them? And if you say nothing, then how can the points be distinguished at all?

Are we unreasonable, then, when we question, ‘What is a point in time?” No. We can’t question everything every day, as it would likely put us in a state of paralysis, but asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straight forward path to learning.

The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness

Along the same vein as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness is the business philosophy handbook from the marketing, advertising, and PR firm Ogilvy & Mather.

The book is a roadmap for the desired organizational culture at Ogilvy & Mather and clearly articulates the unique culture they espouse: one focused heavily on creativity.

The book outlines eight simple virtues of an organization where creativity is pervasive:

  1. Courage
  2. Idealism
  3. Curiosity
  4. Playfulness
  5. Candour
  6. Intuition
  7. Free-Spiritedness
  8. Persistence

These eight virtues are common to creative people down through the ages. They are our path to recognizing our own inner greatness. Together, they should represent the distillation of what is best in this company. We must live by them and for them.

1. Courage

If fear is our principal adversary, then, courage is our chief ally. It is the first of the eight creative habits for good reason: it is the habit that guarantees all the others.

In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.

2. Idealism

Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist, was asked by a journalist what she thought would be worse than being born blind. She replied without missing a beat, ‘to have sight and no vision.’

3. Curiosity

‘He who no longer pauses to wonder and stand rapt in awe,’ Einstein pronounced, ‘is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

It is only in the open state of curiosity that we can explore, dream and make babies in our heads.

For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.

Once again, Einstein has something to say on the matter (as well as proving that he would have made a very short-lived cat): ‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted,’ the physicist said. ‘I am only very, very curious.’

4. Playfulness

David (Ogilvy) never entirely grew up.

He would heckle in meetings, throw chocolate cakes at dinner parties and roll down grassy slopes in Brooks Brothers suits.

He told us to develop our eccentricities while we’re young so people would not think we’re going gaga as we got older.

Like all creative people, David knew that necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is horseplay that’s most certainly the father.

5. Candour

We are a company of problem solvers.

Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.

For unless we know the truth, in all its unlovely details, how are we going to go about the business of problem solving.

The tendency to be nice and avoid telling the truth is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

6. Intuition

We waste our beautiful mind by leaning lopsidedly on logic.

We are in the business of creativity and discovery. What clients value most about us is our ability to find one-of-a-kind solutions for their business problems through intuitive leaps.

7. Free-Spiritedness

Ironically, most agencies fail to grasp the fragility of the idea-generation process.

The notion that bureaucratic sausage factories pumping out fodder for meetings will solve the problem is ludicrous, as are the box-ticking, paint-by-numbers follow-up sessions.

The work is, not infrequently, as dull as the meetings that precede it.

Bureaucracy has no place in an ideas company.

8. Persistence

If the client kills your day, do him a better one.

If he kills the better one, do him an even better one.

If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

Dogged determination is often the only trait that separates a moderately creative person from a highly creative one.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you’ll have a very hard time finding it on the open market (as the Amazon link above attests). To learn more this video does a great job of summarizing the eight virtues. You could also listen to The Knowledge Project Podcast Episode #19 with Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.

The Danger of Comparing Yourself to Others

The most important things in life are internal not external.

“The big question about how people behave,” says Warren Buffett, “is whether they’ve got an inner scorecard or an outer scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an inner scorecard.” To make his point, Buffett often asks a simple question: Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?

Comparing ourselves to others allows them to drive our behavior. This type of comparison is between you and someone else. Sometimes it’s about something genetic, like wishing to be taller, but more often it’s about something the other person is capable of doing that we wish we could do as well. Maybe Sally writes better reports than you, and maybe Bob has a happier relationship with his spouse than you do. Sometimes this comparison is motivating and sometimes it’s destructive.

You can be anything but you can’t be everything. When we compare ourselves to others, we’re often comparing their best features against our average ones. It’s like being right-handed and trying to play an instrument with your left hand. Not only do we naturally want to be better than them, the unconscious realization that we are not often becomes self-destructive.

Comparisons between people are a recipe for unhappiness unless you are the best in the world. Which, let’s be honest, only one person is. Not only are we unhappy but the other people are as well. They are probably comparing themselves to you—maybe you’re better at networking than they are and they’re jealous. At worst, when we compare ourselves to others we end up focusing our energy on bringing them down instead of raising ourselves up.

There is one thing that you’re better at than other people: being you. This is the only game you can really win.

When you start with this mindset the world starts to look better again. No longer are you focused on where you stand relative to others. Instead, your focus and energy is placed on what you’re capable of now and how you can improve yourself.

Life becomes about being a better version of yourself. And when that happens, your effort and energy go toward upgrading your personal operating system every day, not worrying about what your coworkers are doing. You become happier, free from the shackles of false comparisons and focused on the present moment.

When what you do doesn’t meet the expectations of others, too bad. The way they look at you is the same way you were looking at them, though a distorted lens shaped by experiences and expectations. What really matters is what you think about what you do, what your standards are, what you can learn today.

That’s not an excuse to ignore thoughtful opinions—other people might give you a picture of how you fall short of being your best self. Instead, it’s a reminder to compare yourself to who you were this morning. Are you better than you were when you woke up? If not, you’ve wasted a day. It’s less about others and more about how you improve relative to who you were.

When you stop comparing between people and focus internally, you start being better at what really matters: being you. It’s simple but not easy.

The most important things in life are measured internally. Thinking about what matters to you is hard. Playing to someone else’s scoreboard is easy, that’s why a lot of people do it. But winning the wrong game is pointless and empty. You get one life. Play your own game.

Jeff Bezos: Big Things Start Small

An interview with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos touches on the timeless lessons he’s learned for business success. The three big ideas are (1) thinking on a different timescale, (2) putting the customer first, and (3) inventing.

What we’re really focused on is thinking long-term, putting the customer at the center of our universe and inventing. Those are the three big ideas to think long-term because a lot of invention doesn’t work. If you’re going to invent, it means you’re going to experiment, you have to think long-term. These three ideas, customer-centricity, long-term thinking and a passion for invention, those go together. That’s how we do it and by the way, we have a lot of fun doing it that way.

Ballet or Rock Concert?

When asked about the pressures of running a public company and meeting quarterly earnings expectations he said:

Well, I think that if you’re straight forward and clear about the way that you’re going to operate, then you can operate in whatever way you choose. We don’t even take a position on whether our way is the right way, we just claim it’s our way, but Warren Buffet has a great saying along these lines. He says, “You can hold a ballet and that can be successful and you can hold a rock concert and that can be successful. Just don’t hold a ballet and advertise it as a rock concert. You need to be clear with all of your stakeholders, with are you holding a ballet or are you holding a rock concert and then people get to self-select in.”

Big Things Start Small

While there is no one recipe that fits all, there are elements of what Amazon does that help.

[I]nside our culture, we understand that even though we have some big businesses, new businesses start out small. It would be very easy for say the person who runs a US books category to say, “Why are we doing these experiments with things? I mean that generated a tiny bit of revenue last year. Why don’t we instead, focus those resources and all that brain power on the books category, which is a big business for us?” Instead, that would be a natural thing to have happen, but instead inside Amazon, when a new business reaches some small milestone of sales, email messages go around and everybody’s giving virtual high fives for reaching that milestone. I think it’s because we know from our past experiences that big things start small. The biggest oak starts from an acorn and if you want to do anything new, you’ve got to be willing to let that acorn grow into a little sapling and then finally into a small tree and maybe one day it will be a big business on its own.

Step By Step Ferociously

The Latin phrase gradatim ferociter Is a Bezos favorite. What does it mean?

Well it means step by step ferociously and it’s the motto for Blue Origin. Basically you can’t skip steps, you have to put one foot in front of the other, things take time, there are no shortcuts but you want to do those steps with passion and ferocity.

Loving What You Do

Not every day is going to be fun and easy. That’s why they call it work.

I have a lot of passions and interests but one of them is at Amazon, the rate of change is so high and I love that. I love the pace of change. I love the fact that I get to work with these big, smart teams. The people I work with are so smart and they’re self-selected for loving to invent on behalf of customers.

It’s not, do I love every moment of every day? No, that’s why they call it work. There are things that I don’t enjoy, but if I’m really objective about it and I look at it, I’m so lucky to be working alongside all these passionate people and I love it. Why would I go sit on a beach?

 

Footnotes
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    Source of interview: https://twitter.com/producthunt/status/1125038440372932608?s=11

Resonance: How to Open Doors For Other People

It’s only polite.

Hold the door open for others, and they will open doors for you.

We are far more interdependent than we would like to admit. We biologically need to connect. “Limbic resonance” is a term used by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon in their book, A General Theory of Love, to express the ability to share deep emotional states. The limbic lobe of the brain is what makes a mammalian brain what it is. Without it, a mammal would be reduced to a reptilian brain with the connective capacity of a snake or lizard. This is why reptiles are often felt to be scary—unreachable and heartless.

Resonance is not only a mammalian capacity but an outright necessity. Our infants will die if not provided with the warmth of connection with another being, despite being provided with all their physiological needs. This has been illustrated in inhumane 13th-century human ‘experiments’ by Frederick the Great depriving babies of human connection, and more recently by Harry Harlow in rhesus monkeys. Baby monkeys choose to spend 17 hours a day with a soft cloth mother figure that does not provide food compared to only one hour a day with a wire mother figure that actually provides milk. Connection is a far superior sustenance.

An oft-quoted study by psychologist John Gottman suggests a partner’s ability to answer “emotional bids” to be strongly predictive of divorce. The divorce rate is higher in couples where partners do not resonate or fail to engage and respond to requests for attention. Those who divorced after a six-year follow-up were observed to have turned towards the other on only 30% of occasions a bid was made, whilst couples who were still together averaged closer to 90%. Furthermore, in A General Theory of Love, the authors convincingly argue that what we are actually doing is synchronising ourselves with one another, with deep impacts on our emotional and physical health.

This would be in keeping with the results of the well-known Harvard Study of Adult Development, which followed a large cohort of people over a lifetime. These types of studies are rare because they’re expensive and hard to carry out. This study was well worth investing in, with one clear overall conclusion: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Its director, psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, states:

Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.

So what now? Where does that leave us?

People feel connected when they are understood and appreciated. My friend’s aunt taught her this when they walked together down a busy road. Her aunt stopped to talk to a homeless man. With no money to give him, she started asking questions about his dog, chatting to him about her own dog. The interaction took 30 seconds. The man’s eyes shone back bright, engaged. As they walked away, my friend’s aunt whispered, “People want to be recognized. It reminds them they exist. Never take that away from anyone.” Lesson learned.

Listen, Summarize, Show

I work hard to live that lesson through the following: listen, summarize, show. True, sustained listening is one of the hardest skills to achieve. I’ve met only a handful of people with the ability. A simple way to focus your attention is to listen with the intention of summarizing the other person’s point of view. This stops you from using your mental energy to work out your reply, and helps store the other’s words in your memory as well as identify any gaps in your understanding so you can ask questions to clarify.

The nature of these questions in themselves will show to the other person that they are heard and effort is being made to take them seriously. Just as it is not enough to know, when it comes to human relationships, it is not enough to understand. What is crucial is to show you understand. If empathy is recognizing another’s perspective, consideration for the other needs to be externalized from you for it to exist and build rapport.

Summarizing and asking questions is a way of feeding back your resonance. Cutting short the conversation, stating opinions, value judgements, your own solutions, or even a lazy “I see” or “interesting” does not demonstrate resonance. In fact, you can use “I understand” as a red flag for someone who does not understand. Often, this is followed by an action that shows a thorough lack of comprehension.

Connect Where It Matters

To resonate with others, we need to connect when it matters. This nurtures both us and others, and also earns trust. Just as in cooking, timing is everything.

This is where the metaphorical doors come in. How do you feel when someone holds the door open for you—especially when you’ve got your hands full? When would you hold open a door for another person?

We may kindly open a door, to find the person has no intention of walking through it and continues down the stairwell because they’re heading to the floor below. In this case, we did not understand their needs. We may even find ourselves bending over backwards for another, without consequence. This is the equivalent of opening doors willy-nilly down a long corridor without anyone walking through them.

At worst, we might inadvertently (or dare I say, even intentionally) slam a door in someone’s face. That will hurt—even more so if we had offered to hold it for them and they were counting on it to be open. Holding a door open at the right time represents tending to a perceived need and meeting expectations.

All people want to be understood and appreciated. By connecting in this way, they trust you understand them and are actually looking out for their interests. You are attentive and willing to open doors for them. The power of resonance will keep you happy and healthy and open doors for you.

Gates’ Law: How Progress Compounds and Why It Matters

“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

It’s unclear exactly who first made that statement, when they said it, or how it was phrased. The most probable source is Roy Amara, a Stanford computer scientist. In the 1960s, Amara told colleagues that he believed that “we overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.” For this reason, variations on that phrase are often known as Amara’s Law. However, Bill Gates made a similar statement (possibly paraphrasing Amara), so it’s also known as Gates’s Law.

You may have seen the same phrase attributed to Arthur C. Clarke, Tony Robbins, or Peter Drucker. There’s a good reason why Amara’s words have been appropriated by so many thinkers—they apply to so much more than technology. Almost universally, we tend to overestimate what can happen in the short term and underestimate what can happen in the long term.

Thinking about the future does not require endless hyperbole or even forecasting, which is usually pointless anyway. Instead, there are patterns we can identify if we take a long-term perspective.

Let’s look at what Bill Gates meant and why it matters.

Moore’s Law

Gates’s Law is often mentioned in conjunction with Moore’s Law. This is generally quoted as some variant of “the number of transistors on an inch of silicon doubles every eighteen months.” However, calling it Moore’s Law is misleading—at least if you think of laws as invariant. It’s more of an observation of a historical trend.

When Gordon Moore, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, noticed in 1965 that the number of semiconductors on a chip doubled every year, he was not predicting that would continue in perpetuity. Indeed, Moore revised the doubling time to two years a decade later. But the world latched onto his words. Moore’s Law has been variously treated as a target, a limit, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a physical law as certain as the laws of thermodynamics.

Moore’s Law is now considered to be outdated, after holding true for several decades. That doesn’t mean the concept has gone anywhere. Moore’s Law is often regarded as a general principle in technological development. Certain performance metrics have a defined doubling time, the opposite of a half-life.

Why is Moore’s Law related to Amara’s Law?

Exponential growth is a concept we struggle to conceptualize. As University of Colorado physics professor Albert Allen Bartlett famously put it, “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

When we talk about Moore’s Law, we easily underestimate what happens when a value keeps doubling. Sure, it’s not that hard to imagine your laptop getting twice as fast in a year, for instance. Where it gets tricky is when we try to imagine what that means on a longer timescale. What does that mean for your laptop in 10 years? There is a reason your iPhone has more processing power than the first space shuttle.

One of the best illustrations of exponential growth is the legend about a peasant and the emperor of China. In the story, the peasant (sometimes said to be the inventor of chess), visits the emperor with a seemingly modest request: a chessboard with one grain of rice on the first square, then two on the second, four on the third and so on, doubling each time. The emperor agreed to this idiosyncratic request and ordered his men to start counting out rice grains.

“Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent.”

— Robert Anton Wilson

If you haven’t heard this story before, it might seem like the peasant would end up with, at best, enough rice to feed their family that evening. In reality, the request was impossible to fulfill. Doubling one grain 63 times (the number of squares on a chessboard, minus the first one that only held one grain) would mean the emperor had to give the peasant over 18 million trillion grains of rice. To grow just half of that amount, he would have needed to drain the oceans and convert every bit of land on this planet into rice fields. And that’s for half.

In his essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” author and inventor Ray Kurzweil uses this story to show how we misunderstand the meaning of exponential growth in technology. For the first few squares, the growth was inconsequential, especially in the eyes of an emperor. It was only once they reached the halfway point that the rate began to snowball dramatically. (It’s no coincidence that Warren Buffett’s authorized biography is called The Snowball, and few people understand exponential growth better than Warren Buffett). It just so happens that by Kurzweil’s estimation, we’re at that inflection point in computing. Since the creation of the first computers, computation power has doubled roughly 32 times. We may underestimate the long-term impact because the idea of this continued doubling is so tricky to imagine.

The Technology Hype Cycle

To understand how this plays out, let’s take a look at the cycle innovations go through after their invention. Known as the Gartner hype cycle, it primarily concerns our perception of technology—not its actual value in our lives.

Hype cycles are obvious in hindsight, but fiendishly difficult to spot while they are happening. It’s important to bear in mind that this model is one way of looking at reality and is not a prediction or a template. Sometimes a step gets missed, sometimes there is a substantial gap between steps, sometimes a step is deceptive.

The hype cycle happens like this:

  • New technology: The media picks up on the existence of a new technology which may not exist in a usable form yet. Nonetheless, the publicity leads to significant interest. At this point, people working on research and development are probably not making any money from it. Lots of mistakes are made. In Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovations theory, this is known as the innovation stage. If it seems like something new will have a dramatic payoff, it probably won’t last. If it seems we have found the perfect use for a brand-new technology, we may be wrong.
  • The peak of inflated expectations: A few well-publicized success stories lead to inflated expectations. Hype builds and new companies pop up to anticipate the demand. There may be a burst of funding for research and development. Scammers looking to make a quick buck may move into the area. Rogers calls this the syndication stage. It’s here that we overestimate the future applications and impact of the technology.
  • The trough of disillusionment: Prominent failures or a lack of progress break through the hype and lead to disillusionment. People become pessimistic about technology’s potential and mostly lose interest. Reports of scams may contribute to this, as the media uses this as a reason to describe the technology as a fraud. If it seems like new technology is dying, it may just be that its public perception has changed and the technology itself is still developing. Hype does not correlate directly with functionality.
  • The slope of enlightenment: As time passes, people continue to improve technology and find better uses for it. Eventually, it’s clear how it can improve our lives, and mainstream adoption begins. Mechanisms for preventing scams or lawbreaking emerge.
  • The plateau of productivity: The technology becomes mainstream. Development slows. It becomes part of our lives and ceases to seem novel. Those who move into the now saturated market tend to struggle, as a few dominant players take the lion’s share of the available profits. Rogers calls this the diffusion stage.

When we are cresting the peak of inflated expectations, we imagine that the new development will transform our lives within months. In the depths of the trough of disillusionment, we don’t expect it to get anywhere, even allowing years for it to improve. We typically fail to anticipate the significance of the plateau of productivity, even if it exceeds our initial expectations.

Smart people can usually see through the initial hype. But only a handful of people can—through foresight, stubbornness or perhaps pure luck—see through the trough of disillusionment. Most of the initial skeptics feel vindicated by the dramatic drop in interest and expect the innovation to disappear. It takes far greater expertise to support an unpopular technology than to deride a popular one.

Correctly spotting the cycle as it unfolds can be immensely profitable. Misreading it can be devastating. First movers in a new area often struggle to survive the trough, even if they are the ones who do the essential research and development. We tend to assume current trends will continue, so we expect sustained growth during the peak and expect linear decline during the trough.

If we are trying to assess the future impact of a new technology, we need to separate its true value from its public perception. When something is new, the mainstream hype is likely to be more noise than signal. After all, the peak of inflated expectations often happens before the technology is available in a usable form. It’s almost always before the public has access to it. Hype serves a real purpose in the early days: it draws interest, secures funding, attracts people with the right talents to move things forward and generates new ideas. Not all hype is equally important, because not all opinions are equally important. If there’s intense interest within a niche group with relevant expertise, that’s more telling than a general enthusiasm.

The hype cycle doesn’t just happen with technology. It plays out all over the place, and we’re usually fooled by it. Discrepancies between our short- and long-term estimates of achievement are everywhere. Consider the following situations. They’re hypothetical, but similar situations are common.

  • A musician releases an acclaimed debut album which creates enormous interest in their work. When their second album proves disappointing (or never materializes), most people lose interest. Over time, the performer develops a loyal, sustained following of people who accurately assess the merits of their music, not the hype.
  • A promising new pharmaceutical receives considerable attention—until it becomes apparent that there are unexpected side effects, or it isn’t as powerful as expected. With time, clinical trials find alternate uses which may prove even more beneficial. For example, a side effect could be helpful for another use. It’s estimated that over 20% of pharmaceuticals are prescribed for a different purpose than they were initially approved for, with that figure rising as high as 60% in some areas.
  • A propitious start-up receives an inflated valuation after a run of positive media attention. Its founders are lauded and extensively profiled and investors race to get involved. Then there’s an obvious failure—perhaps due to the overconfidence caused by hype—or early products fall flat or take too long to create. Interest wanes. The media gleefully dissects the company’s apparent demise. But the product continues to improve and ultimately becomes a part of our everyday lives.

In the short run, the world is a voting machine affected by whims and marketing. In the long run, it’s a weighing machine where quality and product matter.

The Adjacent Possible

Now that we know how Amara’s Law plays out in real life, the next question is: why does this happen? Why does technology grow in complexity at an exponential rate? And why don’t we see it coming?

One explanation is what Stuart Kauffman describes as “the adjacent possible.” Each new innovation adds to the number of achievable possible (future) innovations. It opens up adjacent possibilities which didn’t exist before, because better tools can be used to make even better tools.

Humanity is about expanding the realm of the possible. Discovering fire meant our ancestors could use the heat to soften or harden materials and make better tools. Inventing the wheel meant the ability to move resources around, which meant new possibilities such as the construction of more advanced buildings using materials from other areas. Domesticating animals meant a way to pull wheeled vehicles with less effort, meaning heavier loads, greater distances and more advanced construction. The invention of writing led to new ways of recording, sharing and developing knowledge which could then foster further innovation. The internet continues to give us countless new opportunities for innovation. Anyone with a new idea can access endless free information, find supporters, discuss their ideas and obtain resources. New doors to the adjacent possible open every day as we find different uses for technology.

“We like to think of our ideas as $40,000 incubators shipped directly from the factory, but in reality, they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.”

— Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From

Take the case of GPS, an invention that was itself built out of the debris of its predecessors. In recent years, GPS has opened up new possibilities that didn’t exist before. The system was developed by the US government for military usage. In the 1980s, they decided to start allowing other organizations and individuals to use it. Civilian access to GPS gave us new options. Since then, it has led to numerous innovations that incorporate the system into old ideas: self-driving cars, mobile phone tracking (very useful for solving crime or finding people in emergency situations), tectonic plate trackers that help predict earthquakes, personal navigation systems, self-navigating robots, and many others. None of these would have been possible without some sort of global positioning system. With the invention of GPS, human innovation sped up a little more.

Steven Johnson gives one example of how this happens in Where Good Ideas Come From. In 2008, MIT professor Timothy Presto visited a hospital in Indonesia and found that all eight of the incubators for newborn babies were broken. The incubators had been donated to the hospital by relief organizations, but the staff didn’t know how to fix them. Plus, the incubators were poorly suited to the humid climate and the repair instructions only came in English. Presto realized that donating medical equipment was pointless if local people couldn’t fix it. He and his team began working on designing an incubator that could save the lives of babies for a lot longer than a couple of months.

Instead of continuing to tweak existing designs, Presto and his team devised a completely new incubator that used car parts. While the local people didn’t know how to fix an incubator, they were extremely adept at keeping their cars working no matter what. Named the NeoNurture, it used headlights for warmth, dashboard fans for ventilation, and a motorcycle battery for power. Hospital staff just needed to find someone who was good with cars to fix it—the principles were the same.

Even more, telling is the origin of the incubators Presto and his team reconceptualized. The first incubator for newborn babies was designed by Stephane Tarnier in the late 19th century. While visiting a zoo on his day off, Tarnier noted that newborn chicks were kept in heated boxes. It’s not a big leap to imagine that the issue of infant mortality was permanently on his mind. Tarnier was an obstetrician, working at a time when the infant mortality rate for premature babies was about 66%. He must have been eager to try anything that could reduce that figure and its emotional toll. Tarnier’s rudimentary incubator immediately halved that mortality rate. The technology was right there, in the zoo. It just took someone to connect the dots and realize human babies aren’t that different from chicken babies.

Johnson explains the significance of this: “Good ideas are like the NeoNurture device. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them…ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus.” Tarnier could invent the incubator only because someone else had already invented a similar device. Presto and his team could only invent the NeoNurture because Tarnier had come up with the incubator in the first place.

This happens in our lives, as well. If you learn a new skill, the number of skills you could potentially learn increases because some elements may be transferable. If you are introduced to a new person, the number of people you could meet grows, because they may introduce you to others. If you start learning a language, native speakers may be more willing to have conversations with you in it, meaning you can get a broader understanding. If you read a new book, you may find it easier to read other books by linking together the information in them. The list is endless. We can’t imagine what we’re capable of achieving in ten years because we forget about the adjacent possibilities that will emerge.

Accelerating Change

The adjacent possible has been expanding ever since the first person picked up a stone and started shaping it into a tool. Just look at what written and oral forms of communication made possible—no longer did each generation have to learn everything from scratch. Suddenly we could build upon what had come before us.

Some (annoying) people claim that there’s nothing new left. There are no new ideas to be had, no new creations to invent, no new options to explore. In fact, the opposite is true. Innovation is a non-zero-sum game. A crowded market actually means more opportunities to create something new than a barren one. Technology is a feedback loop. The creation of something new begets the creation of something even newer and so on.

Progress is exponential, not linear. So we overestimate the impact of a new technology during the early days when it is just finding its feet, then underestimate its impact in a decade or so when its full uses are emerging. As old limits and constraints melt away, our options explode. The exponential growth of technology is known as accelerating change. It’s a common belief among experts that the rate of change is speeding up and society will change dramatically alongside it.

“Ideas borrow, blend, subvert, develop and bounce off other ideas.”

— John Hegarty, Hegarty On Creativity

In 1999, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil posited the Law of Accelerating Change — that evolutionary systems develop at an exponential rate. While this is most obvious for technology, Kurzweil hypothesized that the principle is relevant in numerous other areas. Moore’s Law, initially referring only to semiconductors, has wider implications.

In an essay on the topic, he writes:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.

Progress is tricky to predict or even to notice as it happens. It’s hard to notice things in a system that we are part of. And it’s hard to notice the incremental change because it lacks stark contrast. The current pace of change is our norm, and we adjust to it. In hindsight, we can see how Amara’s Law plays out.

Look at where the internet was just twenty years ago. A report from the Pew Research Center shows us how to change compounds. In 1998, a mere 41% of Americans used the internet at all—and the report expresses surprise that the users were beginning to include “people without college training, those with modest incomes, and women.” Less than a third of users had bought something online, email was predominantly just for work, and only a third of users looked at online news at least once per week. That’s a third of the 41% using the internet by the way, not of the general population. Wikipedia and Gmail didn’t exist. Internet users in the late nineties reported that their main problem was finding what they needed online.

That is perhaps the biggest change and one we may not have anticipated: the move towards personalization. Finding what we need is no longer a problem. Most of us have the opposite problem and struggle with information overwhelm. Twenty years ago, filter bubbles were barely a problem (at least, not online.) Now, almost everything we encounter online is personalized to ensure it’s ridiculously easy to find what we want. Newsletters, websites, and apps greet us by name. Newsfeeds are organized by our interests. Shopping sites recommend other products we might like. This has increased the amount the internet does for us to a level that would have been hard to imagine in the late 90s. Kevin Kelly, writing in The Inevitable,  describes filtering as one of the key forces that will shape the future.

History reveals an extraordinary acceleration of technological progress. Establishing the precise history of technology is problematic as some inventions occurred in several places at varying times, archaeological records are inevitably incomplete, and dating methods are imperfect. However, accelerating change is a clear pattern. To truly understand the principle of accelerating change, we need to take a quick look at a simple overview of the history of technology.

Early innovations happened slowly. It took us about 30,000 years to invent clothing and about 120,000 years to invent jewelry. It took us about 130,000 years to invent art and about 136,000 years to come up with the bow and arrow. But things began to speed up in the Upper Paleolithic period. Between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago, we developed more sophisticated tools with specialized uses—think harpoons, darts, fishing tools, and needles—early musical instruments, pottery, and the first domesticated animals. Between roughly 11,000 years and the 18th century, the pace truly accelerated. That period essentially led to the creation of civilization, with the foundations of our current world.

More recently, the Industrial Revolution changed everything because it moved us significantly further away from relying on the strength of people and domesticated animals to power means of production. Steam engines and machinery replaced backbreaking labor, meaning more production at a lower cost. The number of adjacent possibilities began to snowball. Machinery enabled mass production and interchangeable parts. Steam-powered trains meant people could move around far more easily, allowing people from different areas to mix together and share ideas. Improved communications did the same. It’s pointless to even try listing the ways technology has changed since then. Regardless of age, we’ve all lived through it and seen the acceleration. Few people dispute that the change is snowballing. The only question is how far that will go.

As Stephen Hawking put it in 1993:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

But, as we saw with Moore’s Law, exponential growth cannot continue forever. Eventually, we run into fundamental constraints. Hours in the day, people on the planet, availability of a resource, smallest possible size of a semiconductor, attention—there’s always a bottleneck we can’t eliminate.  We reach the point of diminishing returns. Growth slows or stops altogether. We must then either look at alternative routes to improvement or leave things as they are. In Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovation theory, this is known as the substitution stage, when usage declines and we start looking for substitutes.

This process is not linear. We can’t predict the future because there’s no way to take into account the tiny factors that will have a disproportionate impact in the long-run.

Footnotes
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    Image credit: tec_estromberg