Situps For The Brain

Clay Shirky (an always insightful and sometimes brilliant thinker on technology) has written up an interesting piece entitled The (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth. In it, he considers why so many young entrepreneurs are so…young. He asserts that, as we get older and gain more experience, we’re less inclined to buy into something potentially revolutionary.

Instead, we brush it off as a mere anomaly. He elaborates:

The mistakes novices make come from a lack of experience. They overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But the experts make the opposite mistake, so that when a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, they are at risk of regarding it as a fad. As a result of this asymmetry, the novice makes their one good call during an actual revolution, at exactly the same time the expert makes their one big mistake, but at that moment, that’s all that is needed to give the newcomer a considerable edge.

For a 37 year-old partner in a relatively young firm that is locked into emerging trends in technology, his perfectly reasonable assertion feels a bit…wrong. While past experience no doubt shapes us, I think there are a handful of factors – some in our control, some not so much – that contribute to the lack of older entrepreneurs.
My own case is an interesting example. Looking back on my professional career, some of my best and most aggressive moves occurred when I was nearing my mid-30’s. Even today, I’m sitting on new ideas that I’d love to find the time and money to experiment with and prove out. As Arc90 nears its third year in existence, we’re well into one of our own, dare I say bold, product initiatives.
So, why did this all happen for me so late? One word: liberation. Over the past ten years I’ve worked in large corporations (investment banks and the like) as well as an Internet startup that crashed and burned. But only in the past four years, through both chance and conscious choice, did I break off and work on my own. In 2004, I dabbled with a product that was effectively an RSS news aggregator (only Bloglines was around back then). Eventually, I took some work as an independent consultant trying different things. Soon after that, that ended with the launching of Arc90.
During that period, I met new people, heard new ideas, was confronted with new problems and challenged to come up with new and creative solutions. All the while, I was reading what was happening in technology, closely watching RSS and Ajax emerge from trends into full blown movements. The last four years have been, without a doubt, the most fulfilling and enriching years of my professional career.
Am I the exception, or did my surrounding circumstances play a large part in my “later years” entrepreneurial thinking? I firmly believe that I am not the exception, and that we can consciously do a lot more to keep the creative mind going. I do believe that this is less about the weight of our past experiences and how they drag us down and more about mindset. How do I improve my mindset so that (a) I come up with fresh, new ideas (and keep coming up with them and (b) how do I condition myself to not fear going after them .
I think the above two points are inextricably related. If you have fears, you will undoubtedly stunt your ability to come up with fresh ideas. If the fresh ideas stop coming, when they do arise you’ll be far more inclined to crush the rebellion and go back to your routine. So how can we keep the fearless flow of new ideas flowing? Here are some things I try to do that you may find helpful (budding entrepreneurs in your 20’s, you can skip over this part):

  • Change Your Scenery. If you’re staring at the same wall calendar, crystal picture frame and stress ball you got at the last convention all day, every day, you’re already losing the battle. Kathy Sierra has a great writeup called Brain Death By Dull Cubicle. In sum, your brain shrinks into a dull gray mass if your surrounding stimuli doesn’t challenge or provoke your thinking in any way. If you can, move around. If you own a laptop, camp elsewhere – outside if possible. Take the train instead of the bus. If you can’t, rearrange your surroundings as often as possible. Get rid of things. Put new things in place. If we think about the moment you come out of the womb, it is an absolutely massive bombardment of stimuli and the scale effectively goes down from there. Like our muscles, the less we challenge it, the less our brain needs to grow and adapt.
  • Draw Out Your Sandbox, Then Go Play. Most of us have jobs with responsibilities that consume the great majority of our days. Not everyone has the luxury of the 20% rule that Googlers enjoy. So…create your own. Consciously delineate a playground where you can take risks and play with some cool stuff. You may have to do this on your own time, but so be it. Before you know it, you’ll be addicted to the rush of being someplace foreign where you’re learning and experimenting with little risk. You’re back in school.
  • Play With Metaphors This one’s a bit tricky. One of the most compelling things about object-oriented thinking is that it’s origins are metaphorical. It is, in effect, a collection of tricks that attempts to leverage our understanding of the characteristics of objects in the real world (i.e. objects that have properties and do things) with objects in software building. A great exercise is to take ideas, patterns and notions in a completely different domain and force them into another domain. The result is often nonsense, but on occasion it can fire off all sorts of creative thinking.
  • Have A Glass Of Wine. Ok, this one is probably mildly controversial. The philosopher Ovid wrote “Wine gives courage and makes men more apt for passion.” I’m not talking about chugging a couple of bottles of wine and chasing it with a box of Cheez-Its. A glass of red wine may well cause you to ramble on (both vocally and in your head) and it may cause to view something with a bolder perspective. Bravado and a mild case of recklessness is something many of us lack in our lives today. That’s a good thing in our lives, but a bad thing in our minds. I’ve heard some argue that other substances like marijuana could do even more. Hell, Steve Jobs supposedly said that taking LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.” I wouldn’t go that far, but a little nudge is a good thing.
  • Exercise The Body And The Brain Will Follow. A run approximately five times a week and I can say without a doubt that some of my best ideas have come up in the last fifteen minutes of a run. I have no clue why this is the case. Maybe all that extra oxygen gets things going a bit better. Try to find the time to work up a good sweat and you’ll find that your brain will get in shape tool.

I should probably disclaim that I’m no expert in psychology or anything of the sort. I’m just sharing my own tricks for staying creative and maintaining a more intellectually aggressive mindset. I think the one common theme for me has been: don’t stop growing and learning.
Oh, and one last thing…get yourself a juicer.

2 Comments Situps For The Brain

  1. Johnny Rodgers

    Inspiring post, Rich! I would guess that one thing Shirky’s analysis misses is simply changing priorities. 24 year olds can stay up all night and code, then spend hours reading blogs and catching trends. 34 and 44 year olds may not have the same flexibility due to family or career pressures. As you say though, I’m sure you’re one of many exceptions to this generalization.
    As one of the “budding entrepreneurs in my 20s” that you mention, I can say that the suggestions you offer for keeping a fresh outlook are as relevant to me now as they may be in 10 years. I find that I get most excited about what I do by blogging. As a self-employed developer, I spend a lot of time alone during the day. Blogging gives me the sense (possibly illusion ;) )of sharing ideas with others…and then makes me want to come up with new ones! Also, devoting a couple hours every once in a while to playing around with Processing ( has provided me with lots of sketches (code and artistic) which inspire my ‘serious’ projects.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *