On Serendipity

How do bands form?

I’ve long been fascinated by this question. What are the odds that the Beatles could actually come together? And is there anything that we can do to not only accelerate that kind of unlocking of creative potential, but to actually engineer its maximization?

And I’m not talking about New Kids on the Block, or other [s]exploitative measures designed to achieve a simulacrum of engineered success.

Most people hate their jobs. They watch the clock. They drive someplace to do something they’d rather not be doing, and when they’re done, they drive back so they can do something else entirely, or forget their troubles in rituals like binge eating and drinking.

They find their coworkers boring and shallow. Workplace parodies like Office Space and The Office reveal deep-seated anxieties about the nature of our work and our workplaces. Even worse, we train people to accept that kind of quotidian boredom in our schools: factory-style learning produces workplace-style disengagement. No wonder there’s such a problem with bullying: the teachers bully the kids, and the kids bully each other. Both are bored, cynical, and disengaged. Bullying is, by far, the most interesting and engaging thing going on in most of our schools. No wonder kids latch onto it.

If four kids from Liverpool can form the Beatles, what can four kids from Baltimore or Boston do? Arguably, there’s as much locked-up potential everywhere. Just like Einstein proved that Mass is Energy, and the conditions for conversion need to be just right to unleash it, I think we can prove that unlocking human potential is just a question of setting up the right conditions.

Our schools aren’t working. Anything good that happens in schools, public or private, happens essentially by accident. Kids might stumble into one or two good teachers or engage in a similar number of creative projects that they actually care about. Tragically, many kids never get that chance, even once.

Our workplaces aren’t working. With some significant exceptions, workplaces are dull and destroy the spirit. The few, exceptional, entrepreneurial workplace environments that promote any level of self-actualization should be celebrated. They do exist. But for the most part, we’re a society of zombies living for the weekend. That shit is broken.

Coworking, entrepreneurship, and community-powered endeavors are leading the way in the right direction. They help accelerate the serendipity required for self-actualization and engagement. The best chance we have of unlocking a Beatles-like level of creativity is through things like coworking and barcamps. One of the innovators behind them, Chris Messina, has said they provide “accelerated serendipity,” and that coworking is like “Barcamp every day.”

But we can do better. Why is it that the best we can do is to try to accelerate serendipity? What might we do to engineer it? Acceleration just means we’re bumping into each other in random ways more rapidly. If we engineer that bumping, can we achieve better results faster?

How to do this? I’m not sure. Certainly being conscious of that goal, and breaking out of old patterns are key. More people who are presently unfulfilled in their work need to quit their jobs and seek local like-minded spirits. We need to find ways for teams to come together more reliably.

But John, Paul, George and Ringo can teach us something else. They didn’t say, “I’ll form the Beatles if someone can introduce me to four world class bandmates and ensure it’ll be a success.” They just put themselves out there and started playing in places where an audience, and other musicians, could find them. And they unlocked one of the most powerful creative forces in recent human artistic history.

What can you do if you put yourself out there and let others find you? What can you do if you try? You may never know. And your kids will never know as long as you’ve got them on a treadmill of team sports and factory schooling. How are you letting your kids put themselves out there creatively? Or do they have no time for that?

We’re pushing our delusions down into the lives of our kids, and it’s immoral. Just because you have no time to take creative risks, don’t force it on your kids. Leave some holes in their schedules. Knock it down to just one team sport. Give them time to play.

And give yourself time to play. Maybe, if we all could open ourselves up to the possibilities right in our own backyards we could use today’s technology to truly the maximize formation of creative teams. The Beatles didn’t have Craigslist. Maybe if they had, they could have found a good drummer.

On Risk

You’re welcome. Discuss.

The Real Risk Is Doing Nothing

There is an insurance sales office not far from my home with a letterboard sign out front that proclaims, “The real risk is doing nothing.” Of course, they wanted you to think about the risk of not having insurance. But it got me thinking about entrepreneurship and how entrepreneurs change the world through their actions.

And I’m not talking about changing the world in some pie-in-the-sky, abstract kind of way. Recently I’ve been reading the work of entrepreneurship researcher Dr. Saras Sarasvathy, whose theory of “effectuation” states that entrepreneurs actually create the world around them through their actions.

Sarasvathy has interviewed hundreds of entrepreneurs and one common thread she has observed is that entrepreneurs believe that they are called to act when they see an opportunity to create change; they know that if they do nothing, they will achieve nothing, and things will stay the same.

And so entrepreneurs evaluate their options — what and who they know — to take a calculated risk to move a little closer towards a goal. That action might be as simple as putting together a meeting of stakeholders or researching a topic. And with that very first action, they’ve changed the game.

The entrepreneur has widened the opportunity by involving more people, or by knowing more about the subject, or attracting investment. And so in a very real way, she has changed the world around her to make the world more hospitable to attaining the goal. Her actions do not cause the goal to come true directly; it is the compounded effects of the entrepreneur’s actions that lead to a world where the goal becomes possible.

What Really Motivates Entrepreneurs

A purely rational evaluation of entrepreneurship would suggest that it occurs when someone perceives an unmet market opportunity and then proceeds to allocate resources to address this unmet need. Sarasvathy observes that this is almost never how entrepreneurs really operate.

Indeed, most entrepreneurs are haunted by the risk of doing nothing. They might say, “Well, I’ve always wanted to try this idea and I think it might work. How will I feel if I don’t pursue it?” And then they look to limit risk. Often, if someone can craft a scenario where the downside risk is affordable, they go for it. They ask, “What’s the worst that could happen? I lose a year and have to return to my job.” They are not typically motivated by the lure of the upside, but rather the fear of not acting!

Can Entrepreneurship Be Taught?

Are entrepreneurs born risk-takers, or are they just regular people that are applying a particular kind of logic? Sarasvathy suggests the latter. She says that there is nothing about her study of entrepreneurs that would suggest that there are particular personality traits that distinguish entrepreneurs from others propranolol sans ordonnance. The only difference is their use of “effectual logic” and the subsequent learning that comes from its use.

Entrepreneurs ask, “What do I know, and what can I do with it?” They then take steps that help to change the game. Then they ask, “What else can I do with it?” Expert entrepreneurs engage in an iterative process of changing the world and then with each round re-evaluate the opportunities that their previous actions have made possible. Surely it’s possible to teach this process to people in the same way that it’s possible to teach a high-schooler how to think scientifically.

The differences come with experience. First-time entrepreneurs are likely to make mistakes around trust and judgment: they tend to trust people too little or too much, misread the character of a partner, or underestimate the importance of foundational elements like operating agreements. And so while many entrepreneurial enterprises fail, each failure causes the long-term success rate for an individual entrepreneur to increase. Failure helps entrepeneurs to know what pitfalls to avoid and it also teaches him fundamental lessons about his own strengths and weaknesses. This is why it’s so essential for entrepreneurs to pick themselves up and try again! Failure is essential to the creation of the expert entrepreneur.

The Role of Entrepreneurial Action in the World

One of the things that puzzles Dr. Sarasvathy is how effectual logic is used routinely in private sector business but is rarely applied to solving the deep social problems that we face in the world. Some beneficial businesses like micro-lending site Kiva.com got started through effectual thinking (you need $27 to break free from debt? Here’s $27), but for the most part we have consigned the world’s most pressing problems to the work of charitable foundations and non-profits. And because of the way these entities are funded (donations and partnerships), effectual logic cannot often be applied.

Sarasvathy suggests that a wave of social innovation might be unleashed if we were to change the funding model of social enterprises to better enable effectual thinking — primarily because effectual thinking is very efficient and good at minimizing risk at each step. And this goes beyond the current trend of “social entrepreneurship” that suggests that there is a class of problems that is suited to entrepreneurial thinking, and class that is not.

Why shouldn’t all entrepreneurship produce social benefit, and why shouldn’t all social problems be soluble through the application of effectual logic? This is an open set of questions, but certainly they represent the challenge of our time.

The Moral Imperative

If we believe that entrepreneurs literally affect the world to alter their own odds of success then we must also believe that there is a legitimate role for human action in the world.

The theory of effectuation additionally suggests that entrepreneurs are designers: at each stage they are using design thinking to imagine a set of possible solutions using available assets.

If entrepreneurs, through their actions, can help design potential solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, then isn’t the real risk doing nothing?

America Is Bored

Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently outlined a case arguing that America needs to address its ongoing “innovation deficit” and spur entrepreneurship and creativity in meaningful new ways.

How did we get here? Why is it that America has an innovation deficit? It’s simple: we have lulled ourselves into complacency. America is bored because we have made ourselves boring.

Unleashing Self-Actualization

What do we mean when we talk about innovation and creativity? Really what we’re talking about is what psychologists call self-actualization. Put simply, it’s nothing more than realizing all of your unique capacities and putting them to good use. Self-actualization occurs best when it’s in the company of others who are doing the same. Companies that achieve remarkable results are typically loaded with people who are either self-actualizing or on a pathway towards it.

Maslow's Hierarchy

Abraham Maslow described this pathway as the “hierarchy of needs” to highlight the fact that people cannot become fully self-actualized if they are concerned with other more basic needs like food and security.

Like the USDA food pyramid, Maslow’s hierarchy identifies some important elements, but the idea that there is a strictly linear progression towards self-actualization, or that it is inclined to occur naturally, is probably wrong. Looking at the world around us, it’s easy to see examples of people whose lives who have petered out somewhere in the middle of his pyramid, even though their baser needs have been met.

I believe this is because we have designed 21st century America in such a way that we short-circuit the process of self-actualization in a number of important ways.

Problem 1: Suburbs

Self-actualization occurs best when people are able to connect face-to-face to discuss real-world ideas, try things out, and play. This means intellectual conversation with a diverse range of people, including a broad range of views. It means exposure to the arts, to music, and a shared desire to solve meaningful problems.

Suburbs short-circuit these important pathways for self-actualization in these important ways:

  • Slowing movement: people are dispersed – gathering requires use of cars
  • Lack of diversity: suburbs tend towards less diversity of views, not more
  • Diverts self-actualizing motivation into materialistic and trivial pursuits

The first two points are obvious enough, but let’s spend a moment on the last one.

Suburbs divert self-actualization into pursuits like neighborhood-hopping and home improvement. It’s not surprising that we just suffered the effects of a housing bubble. With millions of peoples’ self-actualizing efforts poured into drywall and granite countertops, there was simply a limit to how much housing and home-flipping we can endure. It doesn’t do anything. Working on housing is first-order toiling, not long-term advancement.

Is it surprising that the icons of the housing bubble years were “Home Improvement,”  “Home Depot,” and the SUV? The SUV was literally a vehicle for improperly diverted self-actualization: if I have a vehicle that lets me improve my basement and my backyard, I can become the person I want to be.

Problem 2: Artificial Scarcity of Opportunity

Suburbs have had other unfortunate side-effects: we have allowed corporations to define the concept of work. By dispersing into our insulated suburban bubbles, we have largely shut down the innovative engines of entrepreneurship that used to define America. Where we might fifty years ago have been a nation of small businesses and independent enterprises, we are more and more becoming reliant on corporations to tell us what a “job” is and what it is not.

To the extent that we are not spending time together coming up with new important ideas, we are shutting down opportunities for ourselves. And corporations are happy to reinforce and capitalize on this trend. Opportunity is unlimited for people who are legitimately on a pathway towards self-actualization. We choose not to see it because we think of “jobs” as something that can only be provided by “companies,” and not created from scratch by collaboration.

Problem 3: Reality Television

Reality television is an ersatz reality to replace our own. It steps in where we’ve failed at self-actualization. It is both a symptom and a cause of our failure. As a symptom, it shows that we have so much time on our hands that we can spend it worrying about somebody else’s ridiculous “reality.” As a cause, this obsession can only be serviced at the expense of our own shared reality.

Problem 4: Car Culture

As a society, we spend way too much time in cars. Some of this is due to the issues I already raised about suburban design. But besides that, we spend a ridiculous amount of time stuck in traffic, waiting at red lights, and trekking around our metropolises.

Cars are fundamentally isolating. Time spent in a car is time you can’t spend doing something else. Sure, they can be useful, and I’m not anti-car, I’m just anti-stupid. If we as a society are burning many millions of hours each week in our cars stuck in traffic and covering unnecessary miles, it’s hard to see how that’s helping us become self-actualized (unless it’s in the backseat) and become more innovative. It’s a tax on our time.

Some have also suggested that one reason we have so many prohibitions on what we can do while driving is because we really just don’t like driving that much. Maybe the problem with “texting while driving” is that we are driving, not that we are texting. Maybe communication is more important societally than piloting an autonomous 3,000 pound chunk of metal and plastic?

A Solution: Well-Designed Cities

We’ve had the solution under our noses all along, but we’ve chosen to let our cities languish. Historical facts about America have led our cities to evolve in particular ways that differentiate them from some of our peers in Europe in Asia. But there is hope, and we must recognize the assets at hand in our cities.

Cities offer higher density populations which lead in turn to innovation and a flourishing of the arts. They lead to efficiency of movement and face-to-face communication, which is absolutely essential for intellectual self-actualization and entrepreneurship. Well designed public places let people interact and share, and also provide a platform for festivals, celebrations, and entrepreneurship. There are simply too many positive assets to ignore.

Arguments that American cities are unlivable today are tautological and self-reinforcing. The very problems that are most often cited (crime and education) are the same problems that would most benefit from entrepreneurship and real long-term economic development activity.

The root cause for the abandonment of our cities is race. In the case of Baltimore, WASPs left when Jews became concentrated in particular areas. Jews left when blacks became concentrated in particular areas. And “blockbusters” capitalized on the fear by benefiting on both ends of these transactions. In 50 years, Baltimore (and many American cities) changed dramatically.

Young adults today simply do not remember the waves of fear that sparked this initial migration. It may be a stretch to say that we are entering into a “color blind age,” but we do live in an era where we elected the first black president. I believe we are at the very least entering an age where people are willing to consider the American city with fresh eyes.

We are at a turning point, on the cusp of a moment when people will start looking at our cities entrepreneurially, for the assets they possess rather than the history that has defeated them. We are at a point where we can forget the divisive memories of the mid-twentieth century and forge a future in our cities that is based on shared values of self-reliance, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Designing Our Future

The design constraints we have proposed for the last 50 years — abandoning our cities, relying on cars, building suburbs and big box stores — have led to the America we see today. And I ask simply, “Do you like what you see?”

We’ve let the culture wars frame these difficult design problems for too long, and it’s time now to put them behind us and start to ask questions in fresh terms. It’s clear now the answer likely doesn’t involve old-school silver-bullets like “Public Transportation,” because simply overlaying transport onto a broken suburban design doesn’t fix anything. Building workable cities and investing in long term transportation initiatives that help reinforce a strong urban design is much more sensible.

And make no mistake: self-actualization is an intellectual pursuit, and the kinds of cities that promote real self-actualization, innovation, and entrepreneurship must become hotbeds of intellectual dialog. Truth and acceptance of facts is an underlying requirement for self-actualization, and we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking that a society built on suburban corporate car-culture makes economic sense.

To continue to do so is to prolong and widen America’s innovation deficit.