Innovation is About Reading Between the Lines

To be average is to see what exists. To innovate, create, and be above average is to see in between what exists, to what could be.

Example of seeing in between: people use social media to connect, and people call taxis to get rides. What if the two were combined, and people used social media to get rides? That was the basis of Zimride, the original ridesharing service that later morphed into Lyft. Acquired FM did a phenomenal episode on this story, which you can find here.

Logan Green and John Zimmer (the co-founders of Zimride and later Lyft) looked in between things that already exist, and saw the potential for what might be. They combined things that already existed and remixed them (the basis for all creativity), and they read in between the lines of what exists.

Here’s an exercise: look at a city skyline. If you’re in a city, look at it in person (it’s more powerful that way). If not, look at a photo. Look not at what’s already there, but the spaces in between, and imagine what could be. What would the city look like with ten more buildings, twenty, fifty? Where is there empty space waiting to be filled?

To be average is to see what’s there — the buildings rising towards the sky, the concrete and the glass and the steel. There’s a lot to look at — the human engineering, the business, the industry. It’s enough to keep one busy for a lifetime, just exploring what already exists.

But exploring what already exists doesn’t create anything new. There’s no forward progress, no creativity, no exploration beyond the bounds of what’s known.

To be a creative force, look at what isn’t yet there.

It isn’t just about raw speculation and blind imagination. There are indicators one can learn to read to see what likely will be there in future — what will be needed, or wanted, or created by circumstance.

Human development and human needs aren’t random. There’s a spectrum of things humans need and desire, and a variety of circumstances that elicit those needs and create opportunity.

As an example: the following is an excerpt from David Perell’s newsletter, which came out this evening. It expounds upon this quite nicely:

Munger, China, and Vietnam

While traveling by bus in Missouri, I sat next to a Hong Kong based investor who recently had dinner with Charlie Munger at his home in Los Angeles. After hearing about his dinner, I asked him what he’s excited about. He responded with two surprising insights:

  1. China has the fastest growing elderly population in the world. Due to the one-child policy (enacted in the 1970s) and the country’s wealth boom, the elderly care industry is about to explode.
  2. He was more bullish on Ho Chi Minh City than any other city in the world. Median wages in China are growing fast, so manufacturing is moving abroad. A lot of the low-end manufacturing is moving to Bangladesh and the higher-end manufacturing is moving to Vietnam, a country with 95 million people and a 98.5 percent literacy rate. Thus, he believes that Vietnam is an attractive place to invest.

This investor is looking at a) what will be (the circumstances that are unfolding and the needs and opportunities that will arise) and b) what could be (how to capitalize on those opportunities).

Human desire is based around pain points and needs, and opportunity is created by fulfilling those needs. Learning to predict needs helps you see the spaces between what currently exists in a constructive way, that allows you to treat them as opportunities to be intentionally executed on.

Life is Better the More It’s Your Fault

“God said, take what you want and pay for it.” — Ayn Rand (or, a Spanish proverb)

The above is one of my favorite quotes. It embodies two of my favorite principles in life: freedom and responsibility.

Freedom, to take the things you want — blatantly, liberally, unabashedly.

Responsibility, to bear the consequences of those actions — competently, evenly, calculatedly.

Everything in life has a cost. We don’t always know what it is, and sometimes we experience shock after the fact, when we take something and then realize the price to pay is much higher than we expected it to be. Sometimes we’re thrown off when it’s lower. Sometimes it’s a good cost — an added benefit. Sometimes it’s a detriment that outweighs the benefits gained.

Whatever the cost, every action we take has one. There are two ways we can respond to the costs we owe — one, as a victim of it, someone beholden to an external debt that must be served. Alternately, we can view it as a part of a transaction we willingly chose, and that we’re a competent agent in navigating.

The former deems us powerless, like a leaf in an eddy or chaff in the wind. The second grants us our power, and makes the costs we bear ours.

When a cost is yours, and the choice was yours to incur it, suddenly you begin to see the choices everywhere. Choices in how you respond to the cost, choices in how you pay it, choices in your emotional reaction to the situation, choices in how you handle the repercussions.

Freedom is filled with choices. Grant yourself your own.

“Practice taking agency in everything you do — even the things that aren’t your fault. Take the blame for everything that happens to you. The more you do, the freer you’ll become.

Nothing is more toxic than a “victim” mindset. When things go wrong- people tend to point the finger at just about everyone else but themselves. Aside from great communication skills & self-awareness, personal accountability is one of the most critical traits any leader can possess.” — Brett Bartholomew

Imprecise Metaphors and Their Benefit for Your Thinking

David Perell wrote a fantastic blog post on the importance (or lack thereof) in the accuracy of maps. Side note — if you don’t follow David Perell, you should.
In a similar vein, I want to talk about the importance (or lack thereof) in the precision of one’s metaphors.
This is not an argument against being precise. It is not permission for ceasing to care about choosing the right metaphor.
This IS an argument that explores the nuance of metaphors as a vehicle for thinking — because they’re something I’ve become more and more dependent on, and dependency as complacency is a dangerous thing.
As I explored in an earlier post, I use whiteboards as a framework for thinking. They give me a structure that allows me to explore random ideas with a sense of familiarity — because there’s a framework that I know, and love, and can win.
Metaphors work in a similar way. I’ve become very fond of mathematical metaphors, because I love their streamlined efficiency. I love using mathematical metaphor to describe non-mathematical principles (like how the coaching process works, or how hiring managers think about candidates. I use mathematical metaphors in my work a lot).
The ideas are sometimes far-fetched, sometimes abstract, and sometimes things I’ve never endeavored to grapple with before — or even looked in the eye. The metaphoric framework gives me a space to explore them without having to define context.
I wonder sometimes if the metaphors are too limiting. Does an (a-b)=c equation give me enough flexibility to cover everything that matters? Am I missing important information by being artificially exclusive?
I wonder the same thing about whiteboards. Does the structure artificially constrain me and cause me to miss pivotal information that just doesn’t fit?
Here’s the thing: we can never be open to every possibility and still be conclusive. It isn’t possible. We must have absolute information in order to be definite.
Creativity likes working with definite quantities — but it isn’t static. What’s definite now can become a variable quantity in future.
The purpose of the metaphor isn’t to be absolute — the way the purpose of a map isn’t always to be exact. The purpose is to give a framework within which the information that’s most pivotal to our advancement and survival can be explored, articulated, and conveyed.

The Oedipus Principle: Don’t Run from Your Fears

“Fear of getting hurt, ironically, increases your risk of getting hurt.” — Ed Latimore

In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, the play’s eponymous hero, Oedipus, was born to the king and queen of Thebes. At his birth, a prophecy was given — that Oedipus would one day kill his father and marry his mother.

The king and queen were horrified. Such a child could not be allowed to live, so they gave him to a slave to be set out upon a hilltop to die — barbaric sounding, but common practice for unwanted babies at the time.

However, the slave who was given Oedipus took pity on him. Instead of leaving Oedipus out to die, he gave him to a friend — a shepherd — to be raised and nurtured as his own. And so he lived, and he grew from baby to boy to youth, never knowing that he was the prince of Thebes.

One day, as a young man, Oedipus was walking down the road towards Thebes when a man in a horse and carriage attempted to pass him along the road. It was the king, but he did not announce himself as such, and Oedipus didn’t know. When the king demanded that Oedipus move out of the way so he could pass, Oedipus refused, and a fight ensued. In the melee that followed Oedipus killed the king; then continued on to Thebes and married the king’s widow, who was his mother.

Perhaps the prophecy would have been fulfilled if they’d kept the child. Perhaps not. But the actions they took to avoid the prophecy led directly to its culmination.

There’s a psychological condition referred to as Oedipus Complex. Clinically, its definition is the desire to kill (or otherwise subdue) the parent of the same sex, and bed the parent of the opposite sex. However, there’s a second principle to draw from the story of Oedipus — I call it the Oedipus Principle.

The Oedipus Principle is that, when you want to avoid something, you move so far away from your feared outcome that you run straight into it from the other side.

For example: being so afraid that you’re unattractive that you become awkward and stiff and uncomfortable in your movements, which in turn diminishes your attractiveness. You would have been perfectly fine if you’d only been comfortable, but your endeavors to avoid being unattractive only move you closer to the outcome you fear.

Or — being so afraid of being alone that you get married young and recklessly, only to set the foundation for a rocky relationship that ends badly and leaves you alone in the end, just as you’ve been trying to avoid all along.

A friend once told me, “we have a tendency to manifest our worst fears in our life” — and it’s true. As a general statement, what we hold onto and focus on is what we create. More pragmatically, the actions we take in response to a fear are often overreactions, and they move us closer to the things we’re afraid of, not farther away from it — just as Oedipus’s father was so afraid of being killed by his son that he sent him away — so far away that he ran into him coming from the other direction on the road to Thebes, and walked straight into the fulfillment of the prophecy.