IdeaFestival: Thursday Highlights

When the organizers for IdeaFestival said that most events were sold out, they truly meant it. All of Thursday’s presentations were standing-room only.

Some highlights:

Peter Sims—Little Bets

When Kris Kimel introduced Sims, a best-selling author and entrepreneur, he said, “[Sims has] used the words ‘cool’ and ‘I love it’ and ‘awesome’ hundreds of times since he arrived in Louisville.” And indeed, Sims led his presentation with a discussion of Wednesday night’s dinner at Smoketown USA with Kevin Colleran, formerly of Facebook.

The concept of “Little Bets” comes from Sim’s book ‘Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries’ in which he posits that we need to do more to foster the idea of “affordable losses” in the workplace, in education, and in entrepreneurship.

Make “little bets” with your decisions, says Sims, ones that you can stand to lose. Fail with these bets, lose on these bets, and use them to discover the problems with your ideas. Once you’ve discovered the issues and discovered what works, that’s when you bet big. This is “experimental innovation.” Sims suggests that education needs reform because we are teaching students that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Failures, even little failures, are stigmatized.

He suggests even the most risk-averse organizations can reform their thinking. Sims used the State Department as an example of an organization “which has 12 manuals for everything, manuals that answer every question.” That might have been okay during the Cold War, says Sims, but it’s not anymore because in our current climate, we don’t even know what the problems are going to be.

Entrepreneurs, especially, should think about failure the way most people think about learning. For every 100 small bets you place, you might get 6 breakthroughs. And that’s so fine. Some people are natural conceptual innovators—they don’t need to work through trial and error. These people are often prodigies, and some do their best work when they’re young. Mozart could create on the fly without trial or revision. But most of us are more like Beethoven—experimental innovators. Beethoven’s transcripts were a mess with loads of corrections and scribble marks so violent he often put his quill through the paper.

Other examples of experimental innovators included The Onion. The satirical paper’s creative team suggests up to 600 possibilities for 18 weekly headlines; Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, who test out comedy routines on small clubs extensively before touring bigger venues; and Frank Gehry, the architect, who revises his plans continuously and secures and trusts feedback from his team.

Sims showed clips of the documentary “Sketches with Frank Gehry” to illustrate that last point. Sims suggests that, unlike Gehry’s team, most teams default to the HiPPO model: that final decisions are made according to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. We need to get rid of that hierarchical creative model, says Sims, need to take the HiPPO’s power away from him.

Instead of HiPPOs, Sims said we should be stressing a culture championed by Pixar, one that values “Black Sheep.” Black Sheep think differently and are not afraid of failure. They are, as Sims said, people who will make little bets until the time comes to lay all of their money down.

David Kaiser—How the Hippies Saved Physics

David Kaiser is the Department Head of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, and a Senior Lecturer in the school’s Department of Physics. The title of his most recent book, ‘How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival’ is a play on another popular title, Thomas Cahill’s 1996 bestseller ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization.’ His speech told the history of how the right kind of thinkers in the right kind of environment can revive a dying field.

Physics grew twice as fast as other sciences post WWII largely due to the needs of the Defense Department. In the mid-1960’s there were significantly more jobs in the field than students of Physics. But the bubble burst in the 1970’s.

When the bottom fell out of the physics market, hundreds of graduates entered a market that could no longer employ them. By the mid-70’s, Kaiser said, there were Physics PhDs from Stanford who had to go on welfare and unemployed PhDs from MIT.

A group that came to call themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group (FFG) entered the field at the bottom of the crash and met up in Berkeley in 1975. They had a common interest in quantum mechanics and in asking the kind of questions that weren’t covered in their schooling.

The FFG was seated in the hotbed of the U.S. counterculture. This was a time when even prestigious scientific journals were publishing articles about studies of telepathy, precognition, remote viewing and psychokinesis. Bell’s Theorem of quantum mechanics opens the door to this. And people who understood and embraced these more theoretical aspects of Physics were suddenly “cool,” if not in demand.

The FFG became the darling of the counterculture. They transformed the field of Physics from one that was perceived as being an instrument of the Defense Department to one that was really “with it.” Physicists began doing experiments into the subconscious. Physics became a study about the big questions in life.

They were wrong more often than they were right, said Kaiser. But they made productive mistakes. These men and women were the right people at the right time to “save” the study of Physics by essentially making it hip. They had an unbreakable passion for quantum theory, were incredibly trained and had very open minds. And these hippy physicists helped bring foundational physics back into American classrooms.

Kevin Colleran

Colleran’s speech didn’t have a title. But the first thing that we learned about him might have served well as a title. He took the stage and told us, “I was the seventh employee of Facebook.”

Colleran joined Facebook as the first advertising executive. He worked for the company for more than six years, and by the time he left, he was the second-most tenured employee after Mark Zuckerberg.

Colleran initially joined Facebook without ever meeting the West Coast-based crew. He was living in New York and basing his work out of his apartment. Because the company considered his apartment the “East Coast HQ” of Facebook, the HR rep sent him minimum wage and non-discrimination policy posters to hang in his living room.

He tells a story about how Zuckerberg and the other West-Coasters thought he was black because his Facebook profile picture was one of him and the rapper 50 Cent that he’d snapped on Spring Break in Mexico. When he finally went out to California for a meeting, he says, “I totally trashed their diversity plan as soon as they saw me.”

Colleran says about the earliest iterations of Facebook, “I don’t know why people loved this thing when it first came out.” It was a single page. Users were only allowed a single picture.

Colleran addressed the differences between how people use Facebook and how the Facebook team intends it to be used. For example, the fairly recent addition of the “Timeline” component was met with wild disapproval from users. More than a third of users, he estimates, hated or still actively hate the Timeline function. But Zuckerberg intended Timeline to serve as a digital archive of the most important moments of our lives. Colleran talked about losing his grandparents at a young age and only having a couple of pictures of them, but no other sources of information.

Timelines, says Colleran, is in place to assure that those kinds of things never happen again. No one’s story will be forgotten. It’s the Facebook team’s hope that current users go back and upload baby pictures and life events that pre-date Timeline, so we can all have a digital, permanent archive of our stories. A very sentimental intent.

Colleran left the company last year and is now part of The Facebook Mafia, a group of former Facebook employees who formed a venture capital firm that invests in social media.

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