Sunday, September 28, 2014

How Do You Think Differently, Verse 1

There's a lot of ink around Peter Thiel's new book Zero to One (book summary, link to Amazon). He's a famous Silicon Valley contrarian and startup investor, a man who has formally and informally interviewed a lot of really smart people. How does he sift everyone into quality bands? Meh, good, great, outstanding.
Thiel explains he likes to ask this question in an interview: "What important truth do very few people agree with you on?"

A simple question with just eleven words, but very hard to answer well. Try it. (Here's one set of answers I think are pretty smart on money and investing.)

Thiel says his question/test is a pretty good filter for understanding how deep a person can think. Often in a not-so-good way.
Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:
“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”
“America is exceptional.
“There is no God.”
These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”
Since I came across the question, I've been rolling it around in my head. It's interesting on a personal level, but I've come to believe it's also a very useful exercise for the writer. If you have a set of opinions that are different from the mainstream, you have a chance to stand out. Maybe. If luck adheres.
A writer should think differently than the mainstream. A writer should encode his optimistic or pessimistic or subversive or whatever thoughts into his writing. Different or engaging or surprising or all of the above.
So I'm going to take a couple of posts to work out some of my current answers to this question.
Verse One: Whenever a successful or a lazy or a failed person talks about his skills (e.g., my skills earned me this payout or my skills are better than the person who got the job or I just needed more skills to move forward), what he almost always means is luck.

Everyone nods their head when someone brings this up, but almost no one believes it. Warren Buffett calls it the Ovarian Lottery (being born in the right country to the right parents at the right time with the right intellectual capabilities and the right gender and all the other advantages).

Folks in the audience nod their head because a billionaire tells them this (and people are deferential to billionaires because of their supposed skills). The audience agrees a little, but they don't really believe it completely. As soon as someone gets hold of their millions or billions, they forget about the luck portion of the equation and credit everything to skill.

Sure there is skill in the world. There is being ready with the right mindset or the right training when an opportunity knocks. But if you prepare and the opportunity never knocks, little happens. We maybe call that bad luck. Not the good luck we usually transfigure mentally into my skill.

So I wish everyone good luck. Brush up on your skills, but don't forget the luck portion of the equation.

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