Specific Naiveté and General Competence
Or how you can accidentally reshape the world.
The combination of domain specific naiveté, but a high level of general competence sets the conditions for interesting and unexpected types of progress.
Ignorance is bliss. Or at least some Research says so. But ignorance is also a tool?
I mean. It’s a mode of being. There’s plenty to say about known knowns and unknown unknowns, but I’m talking about just straight ignorance as a state of mind.
A clean slate. A fresh piece of parchment. As pure as the driven snow.
Ignorance of “how things work” and what’s “possible” is actually a really powerful, finite time period (if you like…you know…learn and stuff).
You see, we’re really great at learning rules about the world. This keeps us alive and saves us valuable time and energy when we have to solve and re-solve the same types of problems over and over again. That’s why we (and VC’s) tend to value opinions from people with “experience” and “expertise” in various domains. We believe they’ve learned all the right lessons about how to deal with that particular set of problems and they’re going to pattern match their way to success as new things come their way.
Except that’s not how to solve new problems.
New problems are hard yea, but often it’s uniquely hard for an insider to solve them.
Not because outsiders are smarter, but because the new problem feels too much like the old problems because it’s in the same industry with the same context and probably the same impacted parties and probably feels like it is constrained by the same sets of issues they’ve dealt with for years in the space. They have great workarounds for these challenges and that stops them from actually solving the root problem.
To solve new problems, a Beginner’s Mindset often sets you up for much more success because you don’t know the limits of what’s possible within the supposed “constraints” that “everyone already knows to be true” and as a result you can sometimes just blow right past those limits…because they weren’t real in the first place.
George Dantzig showed up late to his college statistics class one day and saw two homework assignments on the board. He wrote them down, struggled for a few days, and handed in his completed (and seemingly overdue) assignment to his professor. Six weeks later his dumbfounded Professor Neyman (interestingly of Confidence Interval fame) banged on his door to let him know that he had actually solved two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. Wild.
Side note: I wanted to also write about Jack Lucas, Kyle Carpenter, and John von Neumann, but I’ll just let you read about these absolute animals if you have time.
But the idea of pushing beyond “normal” limits isn’t just cherry picked from history. Every year scores of young people enter banking or consulting to work grueling hours, startups that require mountains of labor get founded, and this thing happens like every few weeks and yet things still keep getting built and solved and the participants look back and wonder how they ever worked so hard.
They did it because they didn’t realize they “shouldn’t” be able to.
Same with newcomers in a space.
You don’t get locked into the “right” way to do it because you are trying to solve it from First Principles because you don’t know a “better” way to solve it.
Call it a growth mindset or whatever else you want, but this is a nutso thing that keeps playing itself out over and over.
The key precondition here is being pretty good at stuff and things to start with, but once that condition is satisfied then look out world.
Someone competent is on the prowl!
Now there’s a tricky balance to strike between complete ignorance and having enough context to be aware of an industry’s real problems and earned secrets, but with the right partners and guides I think you can get pretty far without needing that experience yourself.
So. Cultivate domain specific naiveté, but a high level of general competence.
i guess i could’ve saved us all the time and just said “git gud, lol”
Try learning something you don’t know shit about.
You might just surprise everyone in that field.
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