As a recent father, I still fail to see the point of the Baby Einstein series of products. If the real Einstein didn’t need a collection of colorful books and DVDs to become an actual genius, then why should any baby? I simply don’t believe that reading a few illustrated books will give a baby the future ability to invent time travel through worm holes. The same is true for management books. Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and other captains of industry didn’t need to read about how to re-frame their internal mental self-perception reality quartiles to rise to the top. They just did it.
But there is ONE book that I recommend to people that explains more about life and success than any other I’ve read. And the conclusions are extremely uncomfortable but relevant for anybody trying to build a digital business.
The book in question is called The Drunkard’s Walk: How Radomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow. This isn’t specifically a management book and is aimed more at the science enthusiast crowd. But the conclusions Mlodinow reaches are not only startling, but will also force you to re-frame your approach to work in what I’ve found to be a positive way.
Mlodinow’s premise is simple. Success in life – whether it be in sports, entertainment or business – is largely determined by chance and not just on ability or talent. His description, which is far more eloquent than mine, reads:
“The cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic. . . . It is easy to believe that ideas that worked were good ideas, that plans that succeeded were well designed, and that ideas and plans that did not were ill conceived. And it is easy to make heroes out of the most successful and to glance with disdain at the least. But ability does not guarantee achievement, nor is achievement proportional to ability. And so it is important to always keep in mind the other term in the equation — the role of chance.”
The idea that luck is the biggest factor in determining success can be quite disturbing, since we’re constantly trained to worship those who have “made it”. People in positions of power are placed on a pedestal and described as having some kind of super-human ability or talent that eludes the rest of us. But reality doesn’t always match-up with the myth. Mlodinow continues:
“Our society can be quick to make wealthy people into heroes and poor ones into goats. That’s why the real estate mogul Donald Trump, whose Plaza Hotel went bankrupt and whose casino empire went bankrupt twice (a shareholder who invested $10,000 in his casino company in 1994 would thirteen years later have come away with $636), nevertheless dared to star in a wildly successful television program in which he judged the business acumen of aspiring young people.”
Mlodinow’s argument is extremely compelling. There are thousands of great singers, actors, musicians, sales people, technologists and anything else you can think of throughout the world, but only a tiny percentage of them achieve success. In many cases this success can be largely credited to luck and random acts of chance. But in our society we’re taught to bestow God-like status on the rich and famous and – going back to some management books – actually encouraged to copy and emulate successful people (this is a tactic of Neuro Linguistic Programming and other schools of New Age management thought).
So how does this all tie back to the digital space? Well I think there are a few important lessons you can take away that will hopefully give you good perspective on digital product development in general.
- The best idea and the best execution of that idea will not always win. That’s the way it theoretically **should** work with all things being equal, but the role of randomness and luck turns this notion on its head. However, from a product development standpoint the best thing you can do is to put yourself in as many positions as possible to receive the benefits of good fortune when it occurs. This is some of the best advice I ever received from a mentor of mine at an early job who explained this was one of the keys to his success. Get yourself in the right positions to benefit from randomness.
- People in positions of power do not have all the answers. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some very smart people at the top of the tree, because clearly there are. Only an idiot would say Steve Jobs is nothing other than **lucky**. But many large companies in the US are extremely job-title driven, where only executives at a certain level are deemed intelligent enough to have answers to problems. If you work in digital – and unless you’re at a pure-play digital company – you may find yourself even further down the pecking order. But don’t let that dissuade you from sticking from what you believe in. Who knows, you might get lucky
- Don’t overthink what you do. This is a really critical point. Internal product development and branding teams have a tendency to spend hours agonizing over the most minute decision. Should the font be 7pt or 8. Should the logo be sunset red or candy-apple red. Is the word “simple” more engaging than ” basic” on our marketing material. We tend to obsess over these details when in reality the user will hardly give them a second thought. In the grand scheme of things, the role of chance will be far more powerful than a granular decision made after a 7 hour committee meeting.
- Remember that the beauty of random chance is that it presents endless possibilities. A small slice of luck can take even the strangest idea and transform it into a business. That can surely be the only explanation for how the Snuggie ever made it past the concept phase. Ideas of all shapes and sizes can benefit from the effects of good fortune, which is why a simple college site for connecting classmates is now one of the biggest digital businesses in the world.
It was Thomas Edison who remarked that genius is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. I think the reality is that genius is one per cent inspiration, 60 per cent perspiration and 39 per cent good fortune. Randomness rules our lives more than we can ever know, and that’s something I was able to figure out without the help of Baby Einstein!