Ideas are great, but executions are wonderful

1863 Alexandre Cabanel - The Birth of Venus

Within the mind, our ideas remain perfect. They have neat form, divine purpose and they fulfil their destiny flawlessly.

With such perfection as a starting point, it’s understandable why we hesitate birthing them into the world. Not only does it take effort, but the real world is messy, complicated and brutal. It is merciless towards newly realised ideas. At best it is indifferent, at worst it is openly hostile.

So why do we bother ever trying to bring our ideas into the world when they will almost never live up to our visions for them?

We do it because an idea realised, even poorly, is more valuable than one never realised at all.

When an idea is realised, it gives us a benchmark. It gives us learning, proof of concept, inspiration and a path which both we and others can follow.

Ideas are valuable compared to nothing, but are nothing compared to execution.

The centre of our own universe

Although we are loath to admit it, we’re inherently self centred.

It’s not just that we’re selfish and that we pursue individual agendas, but that our entire worldview seems to begin and end with our own Ego-centric model of the universe.

We sit at the middle of our own experience and assume that the full extent of everything expands out from ourselves. Everything exists in relation to us. Its position, its meaning, its function.

This viewpoint isn’t necessarily our fault per se, it’s the effect of our culture on our perspective and it’s so deeply hardwired that it’s tough to unwind.

In fact, given how entrenched it is, it’s often tough for us to even recognise that there might be other viewpoints – other modes of function.

A great example of this is how sufferers of schizophrenia from different cultures tend to view auditory hallucinations (voices in their head).

When our individual nature is given absolute primacy, these other voices can’t be interpreted as anything other than an affront. They are invading our sense of self. An assault on our precious ego.

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

A study of the interpretations of auditory hallucinations experienced by people from different cultures, found that our own society’s view of the self has a huge impact on the experience of hearing voices.

Participants from Ghana and India often reported that the experience of the voices could even be a positive experience because they were representative of their more relational and collective view of the world.

Instead of the voices being an intrusion, there were playful or even divine. In these cases, the voices are a boon, not a curse, because they represent an amplification of what is culturally important, not a challenge to it.

This is a potent example of how our deeply entrenched cultural viewpoint has a huge impact in how we interpret and then respond to an experience. It’s also an illustration of how fundamentally our own view of the world might be biased in ways we can’t even imagine.

In order to solve some of the world-sized problems that we’ve created, we’re going to have to develop some equally large solutions. And by large, I don’t mean scale, I mean that these solutions might fundamentally challenge some of the core beliefs we hold about ourselves, the world and our place in it.

Our view of ourselves, isn’t based on logic built up, brick by brick, from first principles – it’s based on assumptions. And we need to be prepared to challenge some, many or even all of those assumptions if we are to break the bonds which prevent us from looking at the world in rich, new ways.

Striking out from the safety of the harbour

When life overwhelms, it crashes right over our heads like a wave – sweeping us off the deck of our ship and dumping us into a cold, stormy sea.

It’s an awful experience, made all the more insidious by the fact that it can be triggered by the smallest things. No matter who you are or how much money you have, circumstances can rush in on a king tide and sweep you off your feet at a moment’s notice.

Given that complete overwhelm is such a disorienting and all-consuming feeling, it’s natural for us to want to avoid it. It’s reasonable for us to choose paths which allow us to remain in the sanctuary of a harbour where the waters are calm. To not take on anything which might overwhelm us. To keep our hands clean and our legs dry.

But in her wonderful essay We were made for these times, Clarissa Estes reminds us of some important perspectives which we often seem to lose sight of.

…we were made for these times… For years we have been learning, practicing, in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plane of engagement.

While we often feel ill-equipped for the challenge, we’re more prepared and more able to make a difference than any group in history.

We just have to remember to not be daunted by its scale.

It’s easy for us to be weakened and disheartened by what is outside our sphere of influence. But in doing so we forget that larger things are improved by focusing on own immediate interface with the world.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world which is within our reach.

And that dramatic change doesn’t require everything, from everyone, all at the same time.

…but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second or hundredth gale.

We’ll face gales that whip us around and lash us to the rocks – but we are build to withstand even the stormiest of seas.

Our job is to show up, repeatedly. To show up and to bring the best combination of ourselves to face the challenges before us.

…to be fierce and to show mercy towards others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.

It’s a long battle before us, but it’s the most worthwhile battle there is. To make things better. To contribute to a critical mass of enduring good. To leave things better than when we found them.

And in those times when it would be easier to seek the quiet life and avoid confronting all this trouble, we would do well to remember:

When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.

Read her full essay We were made for these times.

Silver and lead bullets

Silver Bullet by Ed Schipul

There’s a great passage in Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things in which he’s chided by a veteran at his company for trying to find a simple solution to a particular problem.

Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web Server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that. No, we’re going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.

Of course we want the simple solution. We want the answer that allows us to tighten one nut and fix the entire machine. But a lot of the time, those solutions either don’t exist or they distract us from focusing on the bigger problem.

Is it possible that the machine we’re trying to fix just sucks? Is that the big problem we’re trying to avoid?

It’s great to have silver bullets. They can sometimes, genuinely be an elegant solution. But a lot of the time, we’re better off just facing into the hard problem.

And you can’t always kill hard problems with silver bullets. Sometimes it just takes a lot of regular, lead ones.

Correct play doesn’t guarantee a good outcome

When we get a shitty outcome, it’s easy to assume that we should have done something differently. After all, it didn’t turn out how we wanted, so we must have done something wrong. Right?

But there’s a great lesson that poker players learn quickly: we can make the correct play and still lose. Often.

Correct play doesn’t guarantee short term wins, but it will give us the best odds of success in the long term.

In the face of a short term defeat, the worst thing we can do is to automatically assume that we got everything wrong and change our strategy entirely.

A short term loss is a data point, not a life sentence.

Getting comfortable with short term loss can help inoculate us against the type of behaviour which will guarantee long term disaster.

There is always a chance of course that we should have / could have done something differently for a better outcome. But it’s never certain. It’s never guaranteed.

All we really do is learn the game, learn the odds, learn the players, learn the situations and make the best decisions with the information we have to hand.

It’s just another reason to play the long game.