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Weekly 3: Life Experiments, Thinking in Opposites & "Little Bets"


Idea Journal Weekly 3

November 12 · Issue #8 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

According to one view, the most productive people see their lives as a series of experiments.
During an interview on the James Altucher show, journalist and author Charles Duhigg suggests that there are “a thousand different systems or prescriptions” to help you become more productive, from exercise regimens to mental models, but there is no one method that works for everyone. 
Because of this, the most productive people try different options, paying close attention to their reactions, and learning from the results.
For the person who tries meditating to increase their ability to focus, but finds it boring, the lesson isn’t necessarily to rule out meditation forever. Instead, they may attempt it again, this time changing the time of day or setting.
If that still doesn’t help them focus, they may pursue another activity altogether, like getting eight hours of sleep each night or jogging, until they find the one that works best for them. 
When learning a new skill (or solving a problem), thinking in opposites can help you focus on the most important elements.
Author Josh Kaufman recommends using a technique called “inversion,” envisioning the opposite, to identify key aspects of a new skill that aren’t immediately obvious. 
In his book The First 20 Hours, Kaufman applies inversion to the example of learning to white-water kayak: 
“What would it look like if everything went wrong?
  • I’d flip upside down underwater, and not be able to get back up. 
  • I’d flood my kayak, causing it to sink or swamp, resulting in a total loss of the kayak. 
  • I’d lose my paddle, eliminating my maneuverability. 
  • I’d hit my head on a rock.
  • I’d eject from my kayak, get stuck in a hydraulic (a point in the river where the river flows back on itself, creating a loop like a washing machine) and not be able to get out.”
He writes that if everything above happened, he’d probably die, but the usefulness of the exercise is that it gives him a detailed list of the steps he should focus on to successfully navigate the river, including: 
  • Learning how to right the kayak if it capsizes. 
  • If he does get ejected from the kayak, preventing it from filling up with water.
  • Practicing the best way to hold on to his paddle.
  • Taking extra precautions to get around large rocks.
  • Scouting the river’s course before getting in the water to identify trouble areas.
Inversion can also be used to solve problems in general: having a detailed sense of what failure might look like can help you develop a plan for facing challenges before they come up.
When developing new ideas and products, successful creators use "little bets" to drive innovation.
Detailed plans and predictions about the future are useful when the desired outcome is known, and when past experience can serve as a reasonable guide for what’s to come. 
But as entrepreneur and author Peter Sims writes in his book Little Bets, when we’re creating something new, the conditions are by definition uncertain, and “we rarely know what we don’t know.” 
In this unpredictable environment, Sims suggests using little bets: small, low-risk actions to discover and test new ideas. 
He cites numerous examples, across a variety of domains, to show how such little bets can “build up to breakthroughs,” including: 
  • Beethoven used hundreds of small bets in his creative process to explore new styles and differentiate himself from Mozart, which eventually led to a new period of classical music, the Romantic Era. 
  • When preparing for a full routine, comedian Chris Rock tries hundreds of preliminary ideas with audiences at smaller venues, often subjecting himself to embarrassment, to find the handful of jokes that will make the final cut. 
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has imbued the company with a culture of experimentation because “he knows that he cannot reliably predict which ideas for new markets will work and which won’t.” Amazon Web Services (AWS), which allows third-party vendors to rent storage on Amazon’s servers, is the result of one such experiment and has become one of the company’s most profitable lines of business. 
Sims himself previously worked as a venture capital investor, and writes that he “… learned that most successful entrepreneurs don’t begin with brilliant ideas – they discover them.” 
Quote of the Week
“Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.”
- Benjamin Franklin in his 1785 report to the King of France on Animal Magnetism
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