It is often said, and several times lamented (by us individuals, including me), that the grass is greener on the other side. That the next “big thing” is “that” or over there” (like silicon alley may be the next silicon valley or that next big thing is “big data”). There is no denying that being in the right place at the right time can be a very important ingredient in achieving success than otherwise (defined in whatever way it is or the scope of it). But there is more to it than meets the eye and the ear.
The question to begin with is, “out there” relative to what, or rather to whom? Just like Newton, Einstein and the myriad of physicists have pondered for ages (motion, speed, time, relative to what), the same notion of reference comes into play when one digs deeper in trying to understand the illusion of “out there”. And as far as i understand, that “out there” is relative to “right here” (in reference to the individual, or the place the person is in now). Essentially, if on one hand the “next big opportunity” lies “out there” then on the other hand, lies the individual in his/her space and time with which the comparison is being made (at-least in our minds).
And that gets to the heart of it all. The answer to whether one goes “out there” or remains here, lies in looking at the “within”, at the opportunity “right here and right now”. We can alway chase the allusion of being at the center of “it” – the place where it is all happening, but really not ever arrive there without examining or developing the within.
Say, as a budding tech entrepreneur you believe that moving to Silicon valley is necessary to “be in” and or by focusing on creating a social application (or lets say an iPhone app), you could be on to the next big thing. Most likely you would be chasing a mirage, unless the transformation happens within, and most importantly (and often the most difficult ), ‘right here and right now’.
Let me explain a bit more. When the early entrepreneurs of the tech industry began they didn’t go to a “silicon valley” (none really existed in the 60s, 70s). These entrepreneurs and visionaries like so many over the millennia, were simply pursuing a specific itch, a specific problem, a specific interest of theirs to begin with – or just doing what they loved to do (as both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have repeatedly said – doing what they loved was the single most important thing for them). And with their dogged perseverance and brilliance they created an industry out of nothing. That is by pondering on a specific problem (a microcosm, given the analogy to things on a cosmic scale) they found a universe. And history is rife with examples as below – in fact as far as i can see, most if not all path-breaking human achievements follow this model
1. Newton was obsessed with understanding why an apple fell over his head or why the water’s surface becomes concave when spinning in a bucket. He was focused on a specific question (and as often is the case, one that people either assume for granted or simply ignored. For example, IBM ignored the potential for computers to be personal for long, giving the likes of Jobs and Gates to really shape that market) which, with due diligence and repeated trial and error led to a universe of ideas and knowledge culminating in development of classical mechanics.
2. Next take Einstein’s example. Einstein was obsessed with figuring out why, no matter in which direction a person traveled with respect to a beam of light, they always measured the speed of light to be constant (completely contrary to everyday experience – if you run along the track of a train, the train appears to run slower and if you run towards each other, it appears to come faster at you. But why not light). A simple question but one that Einstein chose to dwell on for a decade. The rest as they say is history. The one microcosm (that specific problem), opened up the whole universe of relativity and a theory that upended the whole field of physics. Einstein was not chasing the next big thing – he was creating it by immersing his mind to the problem at hand.
3. With respect to technology – one can just look at entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Gates – they were passionately pursuing specific problems, specific itches, not “being out there and doing what they heard from others what the next big thing is.
The allure of the “Out there” is strong, but we can be mindful of it
Part of the allure of “out there” can be explained by our inherent nature – as a species, we are biased towards reaching out from beyond where we are. But this doesn’t fully explain the specific act to reach out to a specific “out there” or to chase a specific “next thing”. I think the human brain is biased to consider information heard from third-party sources, particularly influential sources (read media outlets, like NY times, TechCrunch etc) as important. No wonder, websites carry testimonials , and specially logos of reputed media authorities. We routinely claim, ‘i heard my friend say this’, or ‘she said that about this’, or ‘TechCrunch says its cool’). The more we hear, the more the brain probably thinks, it is “missing out something” or that it ought to know “something that every one else seems to know.” And thus perhaps out of a survival instinct (or a adaptation to gain a reproductive advantage – yes as evolutionary biologists may argue, but that requires another blog), pushes one to contemplate abandoning the current now and here, to seek the promised land there. [Now, in some situations, for example when survival is at stake, yes, moving to another place makes sense, but we are not talking about that scenario]
And moreover, we forget that the “out there” that is so being talked about, is “right here” from the perspective of those already out there. The reason we hear about something somewhere, is because someone there did what they could do best in where they were.
Universes within Universes – we just have to look deeply
So in effect what all this really boils down to is understanding that “universes lie within greater universes” (as eastern mystics have said for long and modern physicists have learned through arduous experimentation). Just look at the atom – up till the early 1900s we thought that the atom was the limit of matter. And how wrong we were – in the last hundred years, we have torn the atom and discovered hundreds of sub-atomic particles. Again, that pursuit didn’t come because of chasing an “out there” utopian dream – it came by dwelling upon very specific questions that stared in your face and that time (from the experimental data).
Similarly, I dont think Larry Page and Sergey Brin went finding or building the next big thing in Internet (though sure that is a motivator) or to organize the world’s information when they hit upon what became Google. They were focused on dealing with a specific problem (of search ranking) at that time and by dwelling deep into it; by being persistent, by peeling layers of complexity and mystery, they created a whole industry of search and intent-based advertising. It was organic – such things are more or less so – just like the tiny stream of water up in the mountain, making it course as it goes, till it becomes a swell that empties in the vast ocean.
Basically, as an entrepreneur, the point is that the vast opportunity lies “right here, right now”. In fact it may lie in the very problem that you could be facing, but probably you didn’t care to think of or work on, because someone else somewhere is doing something that we believe is bigger and more important to work on now (in fact, Jobs cautioned one saying, “don’t live your lives doing what others think is important”).
And after being an entrepreneur over the last 5-6 years, i have only become more convinced that true opportunity lies “here and now”. Even in the niche domain in which we operate (clinical trials), a universe of potential exists. For example, how can we improve searching of clinical trials by lay consumers, how can we make jargon filled search results understandable? How can we improve patients taking an action once they find a trial. From afar, ours is a tiny, not so sexy field. However, if you look deep down, the engineering challenges are immense. And have parallels across domains. If you solve the problem at a fundamental level in this domain, you solve it generally in the domain of information search, retrieval and display. Essentially, the underlying truth (principles) are usually the same universally. And once the universe opens up, possibilities can then translate into new industries.
Maybe it all boils down to what you love - if you love something, you don’t care if the others love it or not – you create your universe around it. Romeo around Juliet. Einstein around motion of light. Darwin around Finches. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates around creating PCs.
So as an entrepreneur before you fall into the allure of the next thing or migrate to the next “silicon valley” (whether it will be india, or china or new york or remain where it is) – remember that unless you are immersed in the now and here, and experiencing the pains and problems of the now and here, you may remain just an external observer of the universe around you, instead of the one creating that universe. And we all want to create that universe, not observe, study, talk, report, blog about it.