Learning how to think

The most profound thought from a recent Inc. Magazine interview with Paul Graham was his response to a question about bad habits shared by YC founders:

They don’t realize how independent they can be. When you’re a child, your parents tell you what you’re supposed to do. Then, you’re in school, and you’re part of this institution that tells you what to do. Then, you go work for some company, and the company tells you what to do. So people come in like baby birds in the nest and open their mouths, as if they’re expecting us to drop food in. We have to tell them, “We’re not your bosses. You’re in charge now.” Some of them are freaked out by that. Some people are meant to be employees. Other people discover they have wings and start flapping them. There’s nothing like being thrown off a cliff to make you discover that you have wings.

The single largest difference I’ve noticed between successful founders and failed ones is hidden between the lines of Graham’s response: it’s knowing how to think. Most people don’t know how to strategize. Most people don’t know how to take what they see in the world and use it to invent something new. Most people don’t take everything they learn, and think “Why?”, “How?”, and “What does this mean for the future?”. But to be a successful executive, you have to ask those questions about everything you read and see, because, if you don’t, you’ll build the wrong thing. Or focus on the wrong thing. Or your competitor will out-innovate you.

There is an insanely huge difference between, “We’re making a site for connecting to your friends” and, “Privacy is a relic of the past, so we’re going to push people to open up their lives and share, connecting them together.”

Most people see Facebook and extrapolate backwards to the first sentence above. But the genius behind Facebook, and why it has been continually successful, is actually in the second sentence. Facebook isn’t about connecting; it’s about sharing. MySpace failed because it focused on the connections, not the interactions between those connections. Facebook had the Wall and the News Feed.

Learning how to think like this is like discovering halfway through your life as a flightless bird that you have wings and can fly. And once you discover it, there is no going back. It’s addictive and powerful. It ruins your ability to be a worker bee, because you’ve tasted blood: you become a killer bee, intent on understanding why things are the way they are, finding their flaws, and pushing the universe forward by fixing them.

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