Teaching Birds To Fly

Imagine a leader that you would label a “visionary.” Think about Sara Blakey, or Jeff Bezos, or Steve Jobs, or ______ (your pick). All of them seemed to have the ability to see the future.

Now remember what we said yesterday: over the short term, stories beat smarts, but over the long term, cautious beats cute.

You’re a crazy person spouting gibberish until you have a following. You earn a following when you have a good enough story. You keep a following when you protect them on the journey you’re leading them on. If history remembers you as smart, it’s because your vision turned out to be beneficial. If history remembers you to be anything else, it’s because your vision turned out to be less than beneficial.

Spanx and Amazon = good, Madoff and Koresh = bad. It’s that easy, right?

There’s a common mistake that we can make when looking at any of them and wondering if they brilliantly saw the future or stubbornly misread the tea-leaves. The fancy name for it is the Teleological Fallacy (from “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb). In plain English, the concept says that we don’t need to teach birds how to fly. Just because we know the math and the physics, doesn’t mean baby birds show up at Harvard every year to take a class before they jump.

It’s a mistake to look at a success (or failure) and think that the person looked at the past, looked at the future, and then had the knowledge to know what to do in that moment. Birds don’t need your physics text books.

But Einstein needed a math book for the theory of relativity, right?

He sure did, but we can’t judge the outcome by the results. There’s a difference between the cause of something and the explanation that describes it. We have to consider the process independently of the outcome.

Annie Duke, in “Thinking in Bets,” calls this mistake “resulting.”  When we win, we’re skillful. When we lose, they got lucky. If you need the fancy words, check out motivated reasoning and the self-serving bias.

Here’s the big statement: Results don’t describe the process that separate Blakey from Bezos from Madoff from Koresh. Whoa.

But motivations and processes do. Be careful of resulting. Be careful of thinking you need to teach the birds how to fly. There’s a better way.

Josh Wolfe of Lux Capital told Patrick O’Shaughnessy about their system called 100/0/100. It’s a combination of arrogance, intellectual humility, and ambition.

Einstein is better than the birds because he could do this. The birds are just as smart as they need to be.

You have to be 100% arrogant to be involved in the most cutting-edge craziness that can be imagined.

You have to be 0% confident, with complete intellectual humility, that you can’t predict what will push the frontier from what will fall over the edge into oblivion.

You have to be 100% ambitious that if you keep living (and persisting) on that edge, something is going to work eventually – and you’re going to be there for it.

Einstein, Blakey, and Bezos advanced the frontier. Madoff and Koresh fell off into oblivion. Guess which ones thought they might be wrong and understood the zero in 100/0/100?

You can’t guess the causes, even if you can describe them. What really matters is your willingness to be on the frontier, and persist there long enough see it advanced.

Have the vision and be motivated by the net-benefit to all of us. That is visionary.

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