The sparking foundation for this belief is the tech startup I tried to found with no technical background. It failed, I learned lots of ‘lessons’, and I realized I needed to get technical and bring something to the table before trying again.
A while later, I chanced upon the You and Your Research talk by Richard Hamming, and it made a lasting impact on me. I’ve been thinking and referring to it for probably over a year now.
Main takeaway: Oak trees come from acorns. In the talk, Hamming goes on to note the ‘Nobel Prize effect’ - the fact that no great work is generally done by a recipient of a Nobel Prize or similar distinction after receiving the award.
When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren’t good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards.
And so there are two lessons here. One, which I learned from firsthand experience, is that you can’t try to build a house without a foundation, no matter how fast you want that house built and how too impatient you are to do it right. It will inevitably come crashing down - hopefully, if you’re very lucky, very quickly, and if you’re unlucky, somewhere down the line after you’ve already moved in and it crushes you.
Take the time to do things right - a shortcut will end up costing much more time in the long run as things come crashing to the ground.
Also, optimize for the long run. Constantly aiming for the short term, particularly in the frantic and ever-changing startup world (hoping to build a lot of hype, raise a lot of money, and get acquired in two years), tends to encourage the taking the illusory shortcuts which have the fate of failure stamped on them from the very outset.
Secondly, as Hamming said it best, it’s okay not to go for the big thing straight off - take the time to plant the seeds and have the determination to nurture the seedling as it grows over many long years. If you want to grow a huge oak tree, the only way to do it is to plant a tiny acorn and wait for it to grow. If you try anything else you’re wasting your time.
So perhaps, there’s no need to try to be the next Google or the cure to cancer straight off - take your time and start small.
And since this is a post rife with pithy and trite statements: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.
It’ll take time. There’s no getting around that. So get going - now.