Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Erudition and Innovation

My confession is that I'm writing this post in preparation for a lecture I'll be giving in a few days to the AIESEC conference. I figured what better way to help jog my mind than present the general gist of what I'm thinking to my viewers.

So without further adieu, what will I be talking about on this post? Something that I think hasn't been paid close enough attention: the usefulness necessity of broad erudition and its role in innovation. So let's begin.

My story is one that some readers of this blog probably know, but if there are any new readers out there, perhaps not. It was half a year ago that I found myself signing on as the co-founder of Fear of Software, and only a couple of months ago that I quit my day job as my initiation into becoming a fully funded entrepreneur. In that time, a lot has happened as I gained erratic but valuable experience and learned from the wisdom of my co-founder Nick LaRacuente, who was wise enough to get me out of the misguided logic of thinking "I'll just build it and they will come" or expecting to have a 2 year development cycle without any kind of intermediate prototyping. And yet I can't say much about this sort of a thing because with this startup, the story is really only in its opening chapter; the most shocking, difficult and serendipitous episodes have yet to arrive.

On the other hand, there's a whole lot that led to my standing right here (or in this case; sitting in front of this computer.) My story begins, well, probably from when I was 5 or 6, but zooming forward a bit... one could safely begin in high school. In middle school, I taught myself how to program and started making video games. Most of the products were over-ambitious, but they were always fun and once in a while I completed something exceedingly simple. I remember specifically, however, in my first year of high school coming across an editorial in Game Developer magazine, which I had a free subscription to, about the potential for games to be a legitimate art form on the level of cinema, books or even fine art. The idea hit me very hard; I was your average 14 year old, mostly interested in video games, coca-cola and generally trying as best I could to look cool; but this idea for some reason was just like a shot to the head; I couldn't shake it!

Unfortunately, I didn't always have my stuff together in high school, so my projects generally got a running start and fizzled out just as fast, but something else was going on at the same time. I found myself for the first time extremely interested in literature; I started reading novels all of the time, even as it interfered with my schoolwork; for a while I even thought that I wanted to become a novelist and writing fiction of my own. Film and music also became more interesting to me; before then, I pretty much just watched whatever Hollywood blockbusters looked sufficiently entertaining and listened to whatever was loud enough to ensure hearing loss. At one point I even found myself fortunate enough to collaborate with several artists in my high school on a graphic novel; a project that actually went surprisingly well--it was certainly childish, with all sorts of elves and demons reminiscent of Lord of the Rings with a twist of Saturday-morning anime; but interspersed with poems and philosophical digressions (but don't get me wrong, it wasn't particularly good; this was high school!)

Life was actually pretty interesting in high school. Not much got done, at least not on the surface, but a lot was brewing. I still remember all of the afternoons I frittered away with friends hanging around nearby diners and walking the streets of Manhattan; but I digress, you don't want to hear that mushy stuff. But my point was something was going on in all that time; metamorphosis is never as straightforward as one things. Soon afterwards, I entered college; and luckily, a college where I'd have the same good fate of meeting friends that would help me develop further; there's another digression I need to take—good friends are important, they'll be the ones who enrich your experiences and lead you to your greatest ideas. This counts double for entrepreneurship, which is about people, your customers; not just the abstract ideas that one can go on for pages about in a novel or express in a piece of music.

Despite some initial confusion as to what I wanted to do with my time in college, I found myself as a double major in English and Computer Science; English because I had always had an interest in literature and found myself enchanted with the study of books when I tentatively took a class on John Milton and fell in love with Paradise Lost—so dense with potential criticism that I read the entire thing at a rate of about 3 pages per minute, which admittedly left me a stressed out mess as I never had enough time to get my work done and barely passed my all-important math class.

But along the way I also found a few books on my own that opened my ideas to the process by which ideas are generated. In freshman year, I came across a book by the esoteric but highly renowned game designer Chris Crawford*, which rekindled my dying interest in game design. Later, in junior year, I came across The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb—which if you read this blog (or know me in person), you know that I never shut up about it.

It's writers like these (a list of which would amount to some light name-dropping) that I hope to pay homage to in this post by using their ideas to explain the creative process and get across the simultaneously childishly erratic and gut-wrenchingly rigorous nature of innovation.

These writers, namely Crawford, left me with a new sense of purpose in my endeavors as well. I dreamed of a new kind of video game that would fit my changing self; the more serious self that found video games fun once in a while but couldn't feel engaged in them the same way as when he was a child. They were no longer as captivating, I had grown older and suspending my disbelief was not as easy as it used to be. I felt that this was what had turned most people off of gaming; and I wanted to bring the experience I had had with video games as a child to everyone. So with a new sense of purpose, I decided that I wanted to make video games that were serious intellectual challenges that engaged people's critical thinking, that would create decisions where people would have to inevitably look back and wonder about the consequences of what they did, that would make the player empathize with characters and be too engaged to move through its world as nothing more than a cold and calculating machine. I wanted to make an experience as universal as a movie or a book.

That put me on the path to today's startup, albeit in a very weird way. In junior year I applied for the honors program in computer science in order to work on a technology called Interactive Storytelling. This would be for creating games with stories that the player could change the course of through their decisions; and they would involve lifelike characters and difficult choices that would fit into complex narratives; there would be closure and catharsis, but also ambiguity. I was accepted, and soon enough I found myself overwhelmed. Luckily, a torrent of ideas came from a class in literary theory I had tentatively signed up for; which I'll talk more about soon.

To make things short, after two semesters of hard work, I cobbled together a tiny prototype and presented it to a general audience as well as the computer science department. The reviews were mixed, but I was happy nonetheless. After graduating college with Honors, I went on to work on it in my spare time before taking a hiatus and getting by with my day job as a paralegal. That is, until Nick convinced me to join forces with him to create a startup; and I couldn't say no.

Our two projects, when compared, shared a lot of theoretical qualities. But we decided to put our respective goals on hold when a new market opportunity came up. But I'm not here today to advertise our project, I wanted to talk about ideas!

So, what is "the stuff that dreams are made of?"
Well, not dreams; we all know that those come from living in your parents' basement wondering when you're going to have a car—no, I meant ideas. Where do we get those?

On the most fundamental level, ideas come from metaphors. That's right, every idea starts as a metaphor; a connection we see between two ideas because of their similarity. In your brain it looks a little bit like this two fold illustration I put up once before (you can praise me on my artistic talent in the comments section):

Your brain...

...getting an idea!

So, those two dots that lit up, what are they? Let's come up with a couple of ideas for concepts... okay, right, this isn't the lecture; just a blog post. Okay, so let's say that the one on top is the business cycle in economics; and let's say the other one is... partying! Because who doesn't love a good party, especially during an economic boom! Well, these two ideas are separated because, well, they don't really have anything in common.

Or do they? Let's think about this one. What do we do at parties? We sometimes have a few too many drinks. Did I say drinks? If any of you are religious or just generally more well behaved, let's just say extra-sugary fruit punch, the kind of stuff that will make you bounce off the walls before you get dizzy from all the running around and then crash. So, either way, you feel GREAT, and then you have a big stupid hangover; and we know that that's the price we pay for it, at least I hope we're all on the same page about that...

Now, what about an economic boom? Well, sometimes these booms are caused by a bubble. People get very enthusiastic about making a killing on the hot new asset, like say... big houses in the middle of suburbia. The price goes up 20%, then 50% then suddenly they're three times as expensive as they were two years ago. It can't just continue like this though; how many people are really going to pay a million dollars to move into a new house? Are you going to do that?

So what happens? The bubble bursts! And mind you, for those who are interested in the history of finance, this once happened in Holland over the price of tulips until... guess what? Somebody realized you can just grow them yourself. So suddenly, prices have to return to a level that actually makes sense; but with everyone having spent so much money on houses and others expecting to make a lot of money selling houses and all the people who were hired to build houses because they were so profitable, guess what happens to all of them? Not very pleasant to think; a lot of jobs, money and opportunities lost. The economy goes through a recession, readjusting to the sudden change that's happened.

But wait, there's a connection there. Something caused things to go up, to become super-active, and now that it's gone, everything comes crashing back down. And that's when we get the idea that maybe there's a connection; we realize that we need lows in order to correct the highs. So there you have it, now you know that binge drinking is a lot like a bad asset bubble.

These are the metaphors that help us advance in technology and discover new customer needs. Don't believe me? Sim City, one of the most successful video games of all time, was inspired by the reproduction of cells.** The beautiful paintings by M.C. Escher are derived from mathematical concepts of recursion, topology and infinity (among many others.) More recent AI methodologies such as neural networks are inspired by biological systems rather than straight-up computations. Even our own idea of what goes on the world is shaped by far-away stories; we look at politics through the lens of historical narratives and fictional fables. People in the United States are always asking "Are we Rome?" Sometimes overtly, but also implicitly whenever they ask about the future of that country.

This happens even on a deeply neurological level. Our brains are ultimately pattern seeking devices and look to find patterns that match other patterns. We see it even in our everyday lives; have you ever seen a shadow and thought a dangerous person was waiting in a corner to attack you; only to find out that it was a garbage can? What about being startled at the sudden rustle of leaves in the middle of silence? This is pattern recognition at its most basic, and it finds its way even into our highest levels of thought.

But before dismissing it all as illogical and irrational, you should remember just how smarter you, or anybody reading this post, is than a computer. That's right, we're so good at this game because we're not computers! Embrace it, be childish and let yourself find connections wherever they are. But how do we go about doing that? Well? Two things.

First, read. Read on every subject you can and don't worry about working on your specialty. You have your entire life to learn the newest Java API or the latest updates to the .NET framework (this part is for tech entrepreneurs; ignore it if you're just a reader that happened to get this far in my rant.) In fact, you'll find that the demands of most situations are so specific and strange that you won't be able to figure out what you need to know in advance; so don't sweat it (but do study your fundamentals, they come in handy.) Pick up some fiction and poetry; or if you're the more serious kind (like myself for a while), bury your nose in some history, economics, psychology or anthropology. Be sure to learn some math too; big concepts that can help you understand things as systems. But you should all in all be looking to understand things in three categories: systems, ideas and the human condition. The third of those comes in fiction and poetry; stuff that really gets at what makes people tick, but that also requires doing another thing...

Live! There is no erudition without experience. Or put another way:

  "Experience, though no authority Were in this world, would be enough for me" -The Wife of Bath

A lot led to where I am now; much of it serendipity and a slowly accumulated pile of books, but I'm most prepared for where I am now from the experiences I've had messing up, doing the wrong thing, doing all kinds of things that left me kicking myself in frustration. If it weren't for that, there would be nothing to hold all this together, just a bunch of gobbledygook.

Mistakes, there's an important word, and it reminds me of another question. What do we do with all these crazy ideas? Where is the empiricism? Ah, there's another idea I have to credit Chris Crawford with...

A T-Rex for ideas!

That's right, our ideas are just all vulnerable little sheep, and we need a T-Rex to rip all but the toughest of them apart. That means attacking your ideas from every angle. Forget all this about being nice to yourself, be a contrarian, drive yourself crazy; be like that kid who keeps asking endless questions about why he needs to take a bath! Not only that; go out and talk to people about your ideas. This is how Nick and I figured out what to do with our own product; we went out and talked to people. And as always, you don't always hear what you want to hear; but that's good, you're growing. Finally, go out there, and just make some mistakes. Not too big though, I don't want anyone coming back here with a missing limb!

As Kanye West once said; "that that don't kill me, can only make me stronger!" So go out there and get stronger, I'm rooting for all of you. And thank you for reading.

*He has a wonderful website for those interested:

**See John Conway's The Game of Life

No comments:

Post a Comment