Monday, September 06, 2010

Iconoclast, by Gregory Burns

Very solid read on how the mind of an iconoclast works. By his definition,  "A person that does something that others say can't be done". That definition is a bit of an update -- originally it meant "breaker of icons" as in religious icons. The word morphed to at least something like the way I like to think of it "one who challenges the common view", which is my personal definition and one that I see as critical to us moving forward. It is also something that I naturally enjoy doing -- although I'm not nearly as successful as some of the really cool iconoclasts he uses as examples.

The book has a good general brain science, historical, psychology and other approaches to how iconoclasm works, doesn't, how you can get more of it, how you can more effective, etc. There are a lot of little examples and anecdotes of how humans are risk and especially loss averse. One, the "Ellsberg paradox" has two urns -- the left one with 10 white and 10 black marbles, the right one,  a different, but unknown ratio of black and white marbles. Subjects are asked which urn they would prefer to randomly pick a white marble, then the same question with a black marble. A very high percentage take both picks from the known left, but of course that makes no sense. You know the odds on the left are 50/50 ... if you took white from there, you are ASSUMING that black is in a higher percentage in the unknown jar. The fact that you take the known shows that you (like everyone else) are risk averse.

One of the other problems with the human brain is that we want to "go with the crowd", which isn't going to do much for innovation. Why?
All our primate cousins, and even the earliest hominids, have depended on their clans for survival. As a result, a million years of mammalian evolution have produced a human brain that values social contact and communication above all else. The way in which we interact with each other is, in many ways, more important than what our own eyes and ears tell us.
Of course, following the crowd does not an iconoclast make -- and in fact, part of being an iconoclast is almost always going to cause some friction with at least some of the crowd.

There is a very good section though on "connecting with iconoclasts" through familiarity and reputation, in which Picasso, an iconoclast who died popular and rich, and Van Gogh, who died penniless and alone are contrasted. Picasso was prolific and loved, Van Gogh was less prolific and positively aloof. Picasso had a much more influence -- a key difference between successful and unsuccessful iconoclasts.

I thought the following by Peter Diamandis, an iconoclast working on private spaceflight was interesting:

"We are killing ourselves in this country by how risk averse we have gotten. It is destroying our ability to make breakthroughs." Speaking to entrepreneurs and CEOs and venture capitalists, Diamandis exhorts, "You have to take risks, because the governments can't, and the large corporations cannot. The government can't stand the Congressional investigations every time something goes wrong. The large corporations can't stand the plummeting stock prices".  ... "There is only one group left. It is the individual who says, "I can't afford not to! This is my dream! If I don't do it, no one else will". 

He was talking of spaceflight, but one might just as well apply it to the economy in general. Worthy book, fairly easy read, positive but not must read recommendation.

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