People are empowered by their lack of power. Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking inside the box

We would do better for the world spreading critical reasoning tools and mechanisms than raising endless sums of capital to be fluttered around.

Last month, I was asked to present at a Silicon Valley conference focused around ‘Strategy’. This gave me hope, as strategy seems to be one of the most underappreciated concepts for those attempting to tackle issues, which was the motivation for my relocation to the start-up central San Francisco. In recent months, books with names such as The Strategy Process, and Strategic Systems and The Systems Approach have all begun to creep in and take over the bookshelves of my apartment. It has become a habit now, as I listen to people describe their plans—whether they be business, personal, or even romantic—to regard agents and objects involved as interchangeable in exchange for the evaluation of their frameworks of understanding. The thing is, everything depends on the effectiveness of a strategy, from simply streamlining a physical movement from one place to the next, or to our grandest life choices. We grow into habits and repeat them, over and over, consistently disregarding the effectiveness of our procedure.

My close friend Eric, who runs a nootropic (non-toxic cognitive enhancers) company, shook my world when he pointed out how little I had considered being strategic about my own ‘effectiveness’. Eric—who currently types at a speed of 150 words per minute, and reads (with software) at a pace of 850 words a minute, reminded me that basic improvements on the input and output speed of my own learning was a valuable intelligence amplification. There is an obvious yet indirect benefit across the board if a person can accelerate the process of digesting information, evaluating information for relevance, and documenting any significant mental update made.

Thanks to his advice, I can now read research papers in half the time it took me to previously, doubling my input rate. I haven’t quite graduated to Eric’s territory of using rubber bands to warm up my fingers each day before typing or entering online typing competitions. But, his seemingly small life hacks have given me invaluable strategic and tactical tools for my daily routine. He tested out my assumptions over ostensibly useful intuitive habits, which I had not considered might contribute to my overall productivity, and I benefited significantly from it.

Intellectually coddled

When we make plans, we conjure up a strategy as a kind of best route towards achieving our goals. The successfulness of that plan depends on the quality of the mindset of the planner. A plan is, quite literally, the psychological representation of a strategist. We can often learn a lot about an individual or groups by analyzing their plans to achieve goals—their assumptions, their blind-spots, their collective emotional states, and their combined cognitive biases and levels of self-efficacy. It would be useless to deny that, as a species, we all have extremely fallible minds.

In reality, the true pitfalls of our reasoning skills are the results of frameworks out of our personal control. The horrific nature of our educational system (described in a previous columns as a “daily mass-murder of malleable mindsets”) forces us to build world models without the critical reasoning skills needed to evaluate the data force-fed us in the schools we were brought up in. We are intellectually coddled on a daily basis by the current trending cultural memes (rapidly shared ideas), which by sheer volume of consideration spread to a level of global false verification. We are generally misguided by the propaganda machines of our TV sets, our newspapers, our classrooms, our governments, and the adverts and the media that surrounds us.

Our earth, in all it’s wonderful glory, is still plagued with suffering. Just like our cars, schools, and societies, our suffering is predominantly man-made. Faulty actions from fallible humans create global problems, wars, poverty, irrational healthcare systems, or even a lack thereof. Flicking through Forbes’ “rich list” of 2015, I can tally up the 1,826 billionaires that make up a $7.1 trillion of collective wealth. Most of these individuals proudly display their philanthropic efforts, and we continue to champion individuals, wealthy or poor, for being charitable or ‘altruistic’ with their capital.

Yet diseases, suffering and global problems rage on. We are petitioned with the idea that more capital is what is needed to solve these problems. But without the right strategy, most capital is simply misspent. The problem is not a lack of capital, the problem is that we have a severe lack of effective strategic planning. We can continue to raise money without realizing the most critical evaluator of that effort depends on the strategic capabilities and not the total sum. The value of strategy totally overwhelms the value of capital. An individual with $1,000,000 and a well-considered strategy can create more of an impact than an impulsive multi-billionaire. We would do better for the world spreading critical reasoning tools and mechanisms than raising endless sums of capital to be fluttered around.

In principle, we have the technological capability of providing adequate energy supply, medical care, and sufficient education for every human on this earth. What’s stopping us? The harsh reality lies in the interconnectedness and overlap of all these global crises. It’s so complex that it’s almost impossible to know where to even begin. But this complexity and confusion underlies nearly every one of our decision-making processes, including ‘simple’ life choices. For every decision, there lies a multitude of systemic overlapping. If we begin to take into account subsystems within systems, and attempt to connect objectives, the whole landscape can become overwhelming. Amongst these interconnected issues, we also need to consider timing, efficiency, and coordination. Considering all these factors, how do we ensure that we’re making the best decisions?

At best, we can hope to make efficient nudges that have knock-on effects. Recently, I attended a conference at Stanford’s Global Project Center called ‘Generating Impact Alpha’, where institutional investors, fund managers and family offices came together to discuss frameworks of generating impact alongside returns with the deployment of their capital. Money, as the currency of fiduciary investments, allows investors to easily track and monitor successes or pitfalls. But for those investors trying to monitor impact, there is often no trackable value to measure the size of the value created. What’s worse is that, often, some of the most impactful investments come from systemically-impactful targeting, which can have a prolific but indirect reward that can be extremely hard to track or attribute rewards to.

The startup world places a lot of social value on Messianic entrepreneurs preaching solutions to superficial market gaps. Much less recognition, value, or investment goes to those willing to attempt to create tools- things that make it easier/cheaper/faster for others to test out hypotheses.

Looking for these companies sometimes takes us out of the industries that we’re originally trying to fix. For instance, massive advances in artificial intelligence would create a catalyst for a whole variety of other industries. A predominant part of effective strategic planning comes from individuals being able to reverse-engineer the thing they’re trying to solve, until they find the true pinch-points and catalysts. The same goes for philanthropy. We throw so much money at superficial nonsense. Should the Forbes list be giving dollars to a charity helping gangs in New York or into neurotechnology research? It is rare to find individuals who seek out the true game-changers, because our psychological mainframe often restrains us from going further enough, for going ‘meta’.

Ironically, we would have fewer worries about gangs in New York if we were also able to understand how the brain works. Entrepreneurs and investors striving to create change need to look for the pinch points. Once we start testing our assumptions on what the answer is, and separating that answer into core, fundamental components, we may begin to see how many issues and even industries are based on potentially fallible assumptions. We tackle the superficial because we aren’t mentally auditing our biases enough to get to the correct systemic targets. Historically, paradigm shifts often come from outlier thinkers who have the self-efficacy and tolerance for risk to question given truths.

Innovating the innovation process

Throughout history, scientific discoveries that create paradigm shifts have acted as systematic game-changers. In our interconnected world, where communication is easier and digital intelligence vaster than ever before, it’s become commonplace to believe that we’re living in a Moore’s Law time-slice of exponential progress. But the current rate of scientific discovery (as opposed to incremental improvements), is being criticized by many in the field as being much slower in comparison to the early 20th century, back when we built planes, created vaccines, and came to understand DNA.

After World War II, Vannevar Bush’s ‘Science: The Endless Frontier’ campaign encouraged the expansion of federal budgets for research, causing universities and labs to grow like never before. But by 2003, the rapid doubling of the National Institute of Health budget suddenly ended, causing the demand for research dollars to grow much faster than the supply. Today, the resources available to the NIH are estimated to be at least 25% less in constant dollars than they were in 2003. The consequences of this imbalance include dramatic declines in the success rates for research grant applicants, and the diminished time for scientists to think and perform productive work.

With less money going to science than ever before, entrepreneurs need to be even more allured by the idea of innovating the innovation process itself. Unless we spend considerable time petitioning for more federal dollars to be allocated to scientific research, we need to be looking out for those ideas that help minimize the threat to researchers, by making scientific discoveries quicker, cheaper, and easier. We can do this by producing entirely new toolkits, such as those being done in computational and synthetic biology, or by creating hardware tools such as automated lab equipment, or even by creating networks to allow researchers to discover information quicker, creating an opportunity for a truly global collaboration on ideas.

Our bodies, economies, our businesses, our cities, our educational frameworks and our industries are all in some sense, complex systems. Yet we are failing to value the necessity of improving our critical analysis. As the world becomes more and more complex, a higher proportion of value should be placed on training new methods of approaches to complexity and having these tools used in an interdisciplinary fashion across industries. We live in a time when anybody can get up and build, where an individual can create a software application after one day of coding and teenagers can collaborate on clean energy tools through chatrooms on the internet. In actuality, there is no man-generated problem we can’t solve. But the catch-22 comes from us ensuring we recognize the most valuable problems, which relies on us being aware of and countering the boundaries of our own individual epistemology.

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