I’ve loved this graphic ever since I saw it 5+ years ago. Getting close to the edge of human knowledge is exciting. Expanding it and leaving a little dent on the world is even better. Whilst this sentiment might be well understood by academia, there are many parallels in the business world that aren’t adequately appreciated.
The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Invent It
In the 1970s, Alan Kay, best known for his work on object-oriented programming and graphical user interfaces (GUIs), famously said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.
We may not all be pioneering engineers or physicists working on a unified theory, but there is still ample opportunity to have an impact. Moving over to the domain of startups, founders are often told they need to have a “unique insight” when it comes to building a business. This advice can be frustrating because it’s vague and not directly actionable.
The image above is a good way to visualise what it means to have unique insight. So, how does one get there? Unsurprisingly, Paul Graham’s advice is well articulated.
“Once you've found something you're excessively interested in, the next step is to learn enough about it to get you to one of the frontiers of knowledge. Knowledge expands fractally, and from a distance its edges look smooth, but once you learn enough to get close to one, they turn out to be full of gaps.”
As he explains, this has four steps: “Choose a field, learn enough to get to the frontier, notice gaps, explore promising ones. This is how practically everyone who's done great work has done it, from painters to physicists.”
I’d add two more things:
Should You Specialise Early?
This is something I consistently debate with friends. The concept of a “T-shaped person”, popularised by David Epstein’s book Range, is apt. A T-shaped person is someone who has deep knowledge and skills in one area (the vertical bar of the T) and a broad base of knowledge and skills in other areas (the horizontal bar of the T).
In other words, a T-shaped person is a generalist with expertise in a specific field. Whilst there are benefits to being T-shaped (particularly in business), I’d argue that not enough young people (myself included), spend sufficient time thinking about which frontiers they want to approach.
The reasoning is simple. Many people approach the edge naturally in their careers. If you spend 30 years doing the same thing, you’re likely within striking distance. This is great, but the quicker you can get there, the more time you have to do meaningful work.
Two extreme examples of this would be Stripe and Brex. The Collison brothers were 19 and 21 when they founded Stripe, and the Brex founders were both 22. Both companies were born out of personal frustration, followed by a process of rapid learning in pursuit of the edge. Most 20-somethings aren’t thinking about payment processing or expense management. But if you’re purposeful about expediting your journey to the edge, the more at-bats you get.
If You Can’t Invent the Future, Try and Invest In It
If inventing the future isn’t your cup of tea, investing behind it is not a bad option. People sometimes describe this as the job of Venture Capital – investing in the ambitious founders who live 5 years ahead of the rest. Regardless of whether you plan to invest personally or professionally, being close to the edge allows you to invest in trends ahead of them becoming mainstream.
Learning from founders living in the future has been the best part of my time at AirTree. If you’re one of these people tinkering on the edge, I’d love to chat.