Keeper Of The Vision

What’s the most valuable thing I’ve learnt since starting work at a start-up? To be a better Keeper Of The Vision.

When I was a teenager, my parents sent me to a (relatively cheap, but still) private school. I was very aware of the the long hours my parents were doing to pay for me to go to school. On top of this, I wanted to compete with my peers: if I have an anxiety about anything, it’s that I’m seen as stupid by my peers. So I felt this thick, heavy pressure pushing on me to work hard at school. Even then: I showed a lot of inertia against this pressure. One of my best friends taught me the whole History GCSE syllabus in 2 hours before the exam because I hadn’t prepared for it. Luckily, he was a genius (I got a B & he fittingly went on to become a teacher).

When I went to Uni we were told that we now had to work a lot more autonomously: it was down to us to manage our work-load. This was true, relative to what things were like at school, but we were still carefully pushed back onto the right path if we strayed too much. The lecturers had a ‘you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t force it to drink’ approach… but at least they led us to water while we decided whether we wanted to drink. We were given deadlines, told off if we were lagging behind. And there were still my peers to compete with. I still felt the pressure weighing down on me and pushing me on to work and achieve good grades.

After Uni the pressure changed from the consumption of knowledge to production of valuable products/services. The lecturers were switched with managers, grades were replaced with performance metrics and profit income, but I still could feel it if I wasn’t pulling my weight. Departments were praised or scolded for their contributions to the company, deadlines were still pushed down on from above, managers were saying things like, “we haven’t achieved targets and we will need you all to put in overtime to make it up.”

Then, 3 years after starting my first serious engineering job, I was invited to help a friend of mine start his start-up (“start-up” still feels like a weird word for bits and bobs that we do out of the flat: we’re expecting to launch our first product next year so departments like Sales, Marketing, Finance don’t need to exist yet: they’re integrated into our own work when/if we need to do them. The majority of the work goes towards developing our product).

I moved up to Scotland into the flat we were conducting work out of and prepared to start work. And I felt something was missing. The managers, the deadlines, the pressure to keep up with peers, the performance metrics: they were all gone. I found myself floating in a vacuum for the first time in my life.

I’ve always considered myself passionate and intensely driven: we only have one life, I don’t want to look back at mine to see 20-something-year-old me watching Netflix and going to clubs that take a few days to recover from. I want to ‘put a ding in the universe’, as Steve Jobs says – or at least give it a good attempt. But after moving up to Scotland, I’ve realised that up to this point I’ve pushed myself forward by ‘being driven’ but still while having the safety wheels on. The safety wheels have been my parents, peers, lecturers and managers that have been a pain in my ass and pushed me to work harder: that pressure which had been weighing down on me. It’s relatively easy to work hard when you have good managers holding you accountable, and then to retrospectively link it to because you’re ‘a driven person’.

In the first few months of starting this new work, I really struggled to motivate myself. I was floating without direction, trying to push myself along by telling myself “I want to put a ding in the universe”. But that was only marginally successful. More times than not, I found myself waking up at around 10 am and then watching YouTube videos for a few hours, finally pulling myself to do work for a few hours. Self-motivation is hard.

Why wasn’t telling myself “I want to put a ding in the universe”, or “I need to do work today” working? A lot of people have told me, “you need to apply yourself more!”, but when I tell myself, “I need to apply myself more”, it never seems to have much affect. Why was this?

What I’ve come to believe is that self-application is only a symptom. There are two causes of application: the pull of a vision – which you will do everything possible to nurture into existence – and the push of pressure from managers breathing down your neck and peers to keep up with. Both these things need to be palpable: not some airy dream like ‘putting a ding in the universe’.

Steve Jobs is known for a lot of things. He’s known as someone who got all the credit while being able to do none of the technical work in producing Apple products. He’s also known as another name, “The Keeper Of The Vision.” He knew what was possible with the current technology, he had a worthwhile goal of making something that he believed in, and he shared that goal. He wanted to revolutionize the phone industry, and under that magnetic pull of such a grand vision, he motivated all of his engineers to create something great. He was also known has a monumental asshole: i.e. he applied a huge amount of pressure through negative reinforcement on his employees to get the most out of them.

Elon Musk is another person who does this really well. His visions for a green energy planet and multi-planetary civilizations are captivating. Especially for sci-fi engineers who dream about what the future could be like: and how to create it. Because of this, he has the cream of the crop for employees: a huge amount of people want to come under the company because of its vision. Musk is also known as not just a micro-manager, but as a ‘nano-manager’, as well as a real pain for anyone who gets in his way. He’s known for shouting to a late supplier down the phone, “you’re fucking us in the ass, and it doesn’t feel good”, along with a tirade of abuse. Again, Musk is a master of creating push and pull to motivate himself and others. He’s primarily an engineer, but lately he’s been hailed as “The Greatest Salesman On Earth”, and I wouldn’t disagree. As of writing this, Tesla’s market cap has recently surpassed those of both Ford and GM, even though Tesla have actually made a loss for the last 10 years straight – selling approximately 100,000 cars a year – while Ford and GM make billions of dollars selling approximately 6.6 million and 10 million cars respectively. Why is everyone pushing to buy a share (at an ever increasing market price) of a company that’s losing money? Because Musk is a master of selling his idea not only to his employees but also to his stock holders.

So where does that leave me? In the last few months, the most valuable thing I’ve learn is how to be more self-motivated. I’ve learnt that it’s imperative to be my own Master Of The Vision. Not to say, “I need to apply myself”, but to think, “what do I really care about and how to I bring that into the world”, and be pulled by that vision to apply myself to do the work. Instead of saying, “I need to do work today”, I need to show myself what the future looks like – 8 months from now – if I don’t get the work done. Most likely, both myself and my friend will be out of a job and I’ll be wondering why I can’t get shit done. That’s a pretty depressing story, and the negative push of that story will also help me do work. I need to tell myself the story of what will happen, not just its implications. Harry Potter is pretty boring if I just tell you the conclusion, “Harry beats Voldemort.” In the same way, the story I tell myself is the object to be studied: self-application is just the boring conclusive shadow that is cast from a good motivational story.

Sometimes the story we’re emotionally engaged with is too far removed from our day-to-day tasks to feel motivating. When the gardener and lawnmower for NASA was famously asked, “what do you do for a living?”, he replied, “I help put spaceships into space.” I love this answer, as it’s easy to become unmotivated because your vision is so far removed from the day-to-day work you do. But most of life isn’t the final Rocky-esk fight at the end of the movie, it’s the montage. I think it’s important to remember this when we still don’t feel like working because we’ve created a moving story but have trouble engaging with it. I still struggle to motivate myself every now and again, but I’m definitely getting better.

The Hitchhiker’s Question

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

 

As arguably the most famous quote in his popular book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams suggests that it is just as important to know the question as the answer. He echoes Voltaire’s sentiment made 300 years prior to Adams of “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”.

Firstly, lets address the elephant in the room: the question asked in his book is way too ambiguous and doesn’t really point to any specific possible answer. It’s like asking, “what is the colour red?”: it’s only half a question. The second part of the question needs to narrow this down to a point towards a specific answer, like, “what is the colour red in terms of wavelength of light?” Answer: 600-700 nm. Easy (we can be pedantic about the exact wavelength at which red ends and orange begins, but that is more of an exercise in definitions rather than science).  In this way, yes, Adams does indeed show that asking a question with a specific answer in mind is vital.  But by making such a poorly constructed question on purpose, I think he’s masking a more fundamental, interesting aspect of the problem. An aspect that is a lot more common than a poorly asked question. This aspect, I believe, has more to do with the answer, and the foundation on which that answer lies on.

Let’s assume that Adam’s question was actually properly constructed, like in the paragraph above. From there, asking a question like, “the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” implies that we have all the pre-requisite knowledge to understand the answer. I cannot ask, “how does salt form crystals” if I don’t understand the foundational science on which the answers rests. You’ll only reply, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” and I will be none the wiser as to what you meant. Yes, the initial question is still important as it implies a certain level of pre-requisite knowledge, but this implication leads us now to see that the problem is a lack of pre-requisite foundation, not the question. We do not blame the ocean for containing waves, consequently tipping us out of the inflatable lilo we were trying to float peacefully on top of. We blame the speedboat that hurtled past us a few seconds ago which had thus caused the waves.

Mapped out above is a hierarchical representation of the foundation on which our answer rests. We have three pieces of knowledge which form that foundation. Those pieces of foundational knowledge then are held up by their own pieces of foundational knowledge (not shown in the image), and back and back we go, like an annoying five-year-old who keeps asking his frazzled mother, “but why?” As Elon Musk says, “we need to get to first principles”, and I believe that viewing knowledge in this way is what he means. Now, I hear you ask in a slightly maniacal way, “well then where does it end?!” But don’t worry, I believe that there is an end, and it is when we manage to get down to a strong, stable foundation.

 

We don’t build our house on a weak foundation of sand: it’ll just fall down given the smallest push. In the same way, we don’t house ideas on a foundation that is weak. A weak intellectual foundation is one where we require more knowledge to understand the topic to a suitable level. There are a lot of areas of knowledge that have solid foundations on which we can learn new things, though. Apple have becoming a billion-dollar company on this fact. Do you need to know the thousands of lines of code, which come together in complex ways to eventually form the iOS on which all Apple phones run? No, of course not. We just know that the operating system exists and acts as a foundation on which we can download apps and use our phones. “It just works.” Yet it doesn’t work by accident: it has been meticulously engineered so that the users need as small amount of pre-requisite knowledge as possible.

 

In the same way, we have natural solid foundations in the hierarchy of knowledge that allow us to grow our own knowledge on top of. If we were to create a basic electrical circuit, we would need to know that electricity conducts, a few laws (like Ohm’s law) and a few other basic bits about the functionality of core components for circuits (where the power comes from, where it goes). We need not know any more. Even though the discipline of electrical engineering is founded upon the movement of electrons through conductors/semiconductors: this deep knowledge of electron movement is mostly unnecessary for the purpose of creating circuits. We have found a stable foundation.

 

We need a foundation of knowledge to understand the answer to a question, and that foundation needs to be stable. So in the same way as the answer, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” “42” might well be the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, but if we don’t understand the foundation of knowledge on which that answer rests, the answer is meaningless. It is the responsibility of the questioner to be aware of whether the answer will hold any meaning to her or not. She must be critical in evaluating whether she has the correct foundational knowledge. And herein lies a more difficult problem with the answer of “42”. Not only does she need to continue probing until she has found a stable foundation, what happens when she doesn’t know what foundational knowledge she doesn’t know?