Is Our Culture Catching Up to Achievement?

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Venture capitalist Paul Graham considers the problem of evaluating what he calls early work from multiple angles. This he does with the view of understanding how those most involved in the process of innovation -- the innovator himself, potential collaborators, and potential investors -- can become better at it.

It's a short essay, but one that will require multiple readings: Graham has lots to say, but the thoughtful reader will be almost too full of thought at any given point to be able to grasp everything at once. I need to reread it myself, but I feel safe throwing out a couple of things that jumped out at me.

First, Graham is right to note that the breakneck speed of innovation we're seeing today is a new phenomenon historically -- which implies that our social conventions regarding new ideas are probably lagging behind:

Some early work by the Wright Brothers, who drew ridicule -- and apologies-- in print. (Image by Orville Wright, via Wikipedia, public domain.)
We just don't have enough experience with early versions of ambitious projects to know how to respond to them. We judge them as we would judge more finished work, or less ambitious projects. We don't realize they're a special case.

Or at least, most of us don't. One reason I'm confident we can do better is that it's already starting to happen. There are already a few places that are living in the future in this respect. Silicon Valley is one of them: an unknown person working on a strange-sounding idea won't automatically be dismissed the way they would back home. In Silicon Valley, people have learned how dangerous that is. [bold added]
This is a very interesting observation, and Graham offers his views on how we can better develop our ability to judge early work.

I'm not sure I agree with everything Graham says, but he is, as Alex Epstein has put it in his Human Flourishing Project, a master practitioner-teacher: His opinion has been tested in the real world and is well worth considering.

In fact, the other thing from his essay that jumped out at me, as a creator, is a way to work around prejudice against my own early work:
Another common trick is to start by considering new work to be of a different, less exacting type. To start a painting saying that it's just a sketch, or a new piece of software saying that it's just a quick hack. Then you judge your initial results by a lower standard. Once the project is rolling you can sneakily convert it to something more.

This will be easier if you use a medium that lets you work fast and doesn't require too much commitment up front. It's easier to convince yourself that something is just a sketch when you're drawing in a notebook than when you're carving stone. Plus you get initial results faster. [bold added, notes removed]
This passage has me thinking about my work flow, and whether I am committing to more serious projects -- and then killing them off -- too early. Another benefit that occurs to me is that this can preserve the creative element of play Steven Johnson noted in Wonderland as so big a part of innovation. How can I make it easy to play longer? is the way I am holding this idea in my mind at the moment.

Graham ends on an optimistic note about this part of our culture, which is itself early work:
Curiously enough, the solution to the problem of judging early work too harshly is to realize that our attitudes toward it are themselves early work. Holding everything to the same standard is a crude version 1. We're already evolving better customs, and we can already see signs of how big the payoff will be.
The payoff, like the threads of this short, but excellent essay, spans many different, but synergistic aspects of the human experience including at least culture, psychology, technology, and business. One could write a book on the subject, and I hope Graham does, based on what I have learned already.

-- CAV

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