Permission to Fail

Kyle Ballarta
Dec 20, 2017 · 14 min read

It had almost been two years since home. Two brothers set on a long and arduous journey through the uncharted. It was a journey that had no path but only the one left behind as they forged ahead step-by-step.

Upon the horizon were lands unknown waiting to be discovered and explored. The two brothers were determined that their resolve would guide them to those virgin lands but the journey ahead would be found tiresome and difficult. As their journey became long and weary, so did their zeal become weary. The whispers of the sirens within tempted their surrender as their eyes and their hearts battled to steer them. It was a journey slogged through the elements, full of challenges. Setbacks upon setbacks, roadblocks upon roadblocks, the uncertainty clouded the road ahead, but still they persisted into the fog, still persevering to believe in the destination ahead.

As the two brothers continued steadfast on their journey, they found themselves on the desert sands of a place called Kitty Hawk. It was a place barren and treeless, with unpredictable sudden squalls from off the ocean. It was infested with insects and mosquitos that overrun their camp and ate straight through their clothes. This was not an ideal place for living, but it was the ideal place for flying. Kitty Hawk became the home for the Wright brothers’ journey into the unknown, the undiscovered and unexplored. A journey that had claimed the lives of many others before them who dared: controlled flight.

Discovery

The Wright brothers were the unlikely innovators, but their discovery of controlled flight has etched them into the foundations of history.

The Wright Brothers have permanently been etched into the foundations of history as the fathers of flight and some of our most important innovators. Somehow these two brothers became the unlikely discoverers and pioneers of the controlled flight that eventually sent us to the moon and beyond. Wilbur and Orville Wright were bike makers from Dayton, Ohio with no college education, no formal technical training, and very little money of their own. Unlike others that had attempted to achieve the same discovery before them, they did not have connections to people in high places or financial backers, but still the Wright brothers shaped the world that we now know, and have yet to discover. How is it that that these two unlikely characters, with a deck of cards stacked against their favor, became the innovators and pioneers that changed our world forever?

Prior to the Wright brothers, there was a general understanding of how aeronautical flight worked. They understood a certain air speed moving over arched wings would in turn make pressure above the wings less, resulting in lift. The difficult and unknown thing to grasp in controlled flight was achieving equilibrium for extended periods of time, which included the mastering of the aircraft’s pitch, roll, and yaw. The Wright brothers’ would find their inspiration in an unusual place.

In this pursuit of this discovery, the eldest brother, Wilbur, was convinced that the art of flight could be discovered in nature’s more elegant design: Birds. Birds had accomplished something that man had yet to understand and set himself to be a student and admirer of these masters of flight. He would find himself riding his bike to the Miami River time and time again where he would bird watch to observe their every behavior and characteristics. He believed that through observing birds, he could better understand how to translate their controlled equilibrium to the mastery of human flight.

Nature is poetry. There is meaning beyond every word, and there is allegory beyond the ordinary in nature. For the oblivious, such beauty and elegance may be overlooked and passed over, but the devoted students of nature are blessed with the secrets that are told in her words. The Wright brothers were students of this poetry, yearning and digging deeper into nature’s semiotics. Through the observations found in the natural, they were able to persist through a long journey to innovate and achieve controlled flight. Whether consciously, or subconsciously, their arrival to that discovery was also informed by nature. The process to innovate is also seen in the natural world that surrounds us. Why do some find success in innovating while others may fail? Why do certain species in biology evolve and adapt over others that may be rendered extinct? Our world is made up of complex systems whether economic, spiritual, government, or even technology and biology. Just as the Wright brothers overlapped their observations of bird and human flight, if we look at biology and technology as systems that overlap, we can better understand the characteristics and dynamics that result in innovation. The Wright brothers were unlikely innovators, but their discoveries and observations found across birds and human flight allowed them to re-stack the deck in their favor. By understanding the dynamics of nature’s systems, we to can stack our deck to increase our probability of success in the process of innovation.

Framework

Throughout our world’s complex systems we have winners and we have losers. Depending on the systems, their maturity, and their composition, they may have different volume, frequencies, and composition of so called winners and losers. Many people may attribute such fate to luck, some people may attribute it to powers outside of their control, and some people may even believe in their power to rearrange the probability in their favor. In many ways, all of these perspectives are true. All these pieces are at play when determining the probability of success in innovation as seen in the Wright brothers’ discovery of flight or in the biological innovation that occurs all around us.

Innovation is art in that what makes the two beautiful is its process and framework. In a world of infinite possibilities, with so many unknowns and uncertainty, what makes an innovator an artist, is their ability to navigate the complexities with elegant form, and to give simplicity to the complex. It is the discipline to its process and framework that gives innovators the freedom to discover and create. It is in between the framework and within the constraints that art is created. As Stravinsky, once put, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one free ones self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” Like art, nature innovates in between its framework. Its constraints allow it to translate the stochastic and dynamic world of complex systems into beautiful design.

“In a world of infinite possibilities, with so many unknowns and uncertainty, what makes an innovator an artist, is their ability to navigate the complexities with elegant form, and to give simplicity to the complex.”

Our world’s complex systems are a symbiosis of interdependent stakeholders that receive and contribute value. Whether it is our system of government, economies, culture, or industries, they ebb and flow with each exchange. Each stakeholder in these systems is both a receiver and contributor to that system; they are both products and producers of those systems. Systems and their progress are based on the ever changing dynamic between motivation and its environment. As seen in ecological systems, species will adapt and progress as pressured by its environment, and in turn its phenotypic or behavioral adaptation changes the value exchange in the system. This exchange perpetually occurs without end and compounds in a combinatorial way that always brings about a truly seminal system never created before. This framework between receivers and contributors is the form nature uses in a world of infinite possibilities and unknowns. It is within this framework that nature’s systems in biology innovate. The frameworks and prime components of social evolution and biology are called Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures.

Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures

Species evolve through small adjustments from generation to the next. Its Phylogenetic Inertia is the capacity in which that species can adapt. Small adjustments over many iterations yields phenotypic and behavior adaptations.

Phylogenetic Inertia is the maximized contribution to evolution or adaptation a species can make within that generation. It is the constraint that illustrates the maximum capacity a species has to adapt behavior or it phenotypic characteristics in response to the pressures from its environment. Nature evolves and progresses from the small adaptations that occur from generation to generation, and the maximum change that a species can make in a single generation are constrained to its Phylogenetic Inertia. In many ways, it illustrates the dynamics that true seminal species in absolutes do not exist, but species are combinatorial in that they evolve from generation to generation. They take things that work and discard things that do not work, slightly changing behavior or physical characteristics each time, resulting in a species that progressively becomes more different the larger the delta from its origination. We even see this dynamic at play in the way we recognize invention in our patent system in the United States. There are no true seminal inventions in that new patents must reference prior artwork of other related inventions. What makes new creations novel and patentable is its unique combination of existing inventions. In response to its environment, a species has the ability to adapt and adjust to the collective changes that occur within its system. In this, the species ensures that is will continually be an essential component to the evolving collective, developing resilience, avoiding direct competition, and fulfilling niches within its ecosystem. An individual apart of a complex system can do much, and the constraints and capacity of that ability is its Phylogenetic Inertia. These are small, but very important contributions to make, and as species maximize their adaptations to the capacity of this inertia; they play an essential role in nature fulfilling unto itself.

Based on a number of external factors such as resources and predators, Ecological Pressures can incentivize cooperation or competition.

Every species belongs to a system of interdependent stakeholders and within these systems the dynamics and collective behaviors change and evolve. Each individual species that are apart of these systems contributes small changes and adaptations within its phylogenetic constraints. With these small contributions and changes compounded over a large number of interdependent symbionts, you have systems that are changing in complexity on many different levels. These small adaptive contributions tweak the value exchange between species by changing the function of certain stakeholders or even circumventing inefficient stakeholders; rendering certain individuals irrelevant. Population and systems complexities can also change fertility, survivorship, and reproductive values as a complete system adjusts to regulate and maintain equilibrium. Compounding adjustments may also change the abundance or scarcity of certain available resources, and as a result, it may change the cooperation or competition between species. In sociobiology the abundance or scarcity of a resource can create the motivation for species to be altruistic of selfish. We have seen certain myrmecological species (ants) develop levels of eusociality that adopt complex levels of cooperation and specialization to maximize their survivorship and gene fitness. You also have even seen this in human civilizations with the abundance of food and natural resources as a result of food domestication in the Fertile Crescent. Resource domestication and food surplus has been a contributing factor in the development of human civilizations and on the other side of the coin we seen the adverse effects of the scarcity of resources that have led to the collapse of civilizations, modern day genocide, and global conflict. These dynamics are what illustrate the Ecological Pressures that effect how certain species adapt and evolve to opportunistically fulfill niches within its collective. Ecological Pressure is the part of the framework that is outside of a species power, but it is what externally influences a species necessity to change if it is to ensure the future existence of its species. The compounded adjustments across a system impact and influence all the stakeholders apart of the collective, including the individual contributing stakeholder. The real question is how each individual reacts and adapts to the system’s Ecological Pressures. Whether coordinated or stochastic, the adjustments that are made in relationship to Ecological Pressures are what make our world, and its systems, complex but ultimately connected.

Reproductive Rate and Rate of Iteration

Within the frameworks of the Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures, it can be deduced that an individual species can only accomplish to the limits of its genetic and behavioral capacity. Apart of the equation leaves the rest to the chance of its environment and external factors outside of its control. In a world of uncertainty and infinite possibility, the only thing a species has a hand in is to what capacity it contributes to its Phylogenetic Inertia and the reproductive rate. In this relationship between a species and its environment, as a product and a producer of that system, its Phylogenetic Inertia is its iteration on learning from its environment. A species makes iterative adaptations to its behavior or characteristics based on the feedback that it receives from its environment and system. This iteration is like a hypothesis based on empirical evidence from its surroundings, and as that iteration is tested against its environment, the additional feedback from its environment will again inform what adaptations need to be made in the next generation. The relationship between Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures is a feedback relationship that produces learning and iteration in a continuous way. For species, the rates of reproduction are rates of iteration in that each generation passes along learning and information of adjustments as they are tested against the environment. The higher the rate of reproduction the more information and learning is produced, and with that more adjustments can be made. The capacity in which a species Phylogenetic Inertia iterates in relation to its Ecological Pressures is what illustrates nature’s scientific method as she perpetually experiments.

“The capacity in which a species Phylogenetic Inertia iterates in relation to its Ecological Pressures is what illustrates nature’s scientific method as she perpetually experiments.”

The reproductive rate from one generation to another in relation to its Ecological Pressures determines its adaptability. If the pressures of a species’ environment is progressing at a rate that is faster than it can iterate, it will most likely be less adaptive and less resilient. Species have a better chance at adapting and innovating if it can increase the aggregate amount of learning that it receives from its environment at a rate that is at least equal to the rate of change of the entire system. From this collected information it can make the small (but important) iterations to the capacity of its Phylogenetic Inertia from generation to generation. This dynamic can be witnessed in species like deer and mice whose reproductive rates are positively asymmetrical to its environment and predators, allowing its species to be resilient and adaptive from one generation to the next. We see on the other end, species with slower reproductive rates like endangered White Rhinos and Polar Bears have difficulty keeping up with the ecological pressures of its environments (mainly due to a lot of human created ecological pressures). We also see this dynamic in resilient bacteria like E. Coli that reproduces on a geometric progression through binary fission at a rate of 30 minutes. E. Coli typically progresses until the host’s lower intestine runs out of nutrients or proper measures allows the system to leap-frog the bacterium’s rate of reproduction. The rate of reproduction and iteration is what makes bacterium and virus resilient and ultimately difficult to fight against.

Every individual apart of a complex system is a product and producer to that system. As seen in evolutionary biology and technology, the framework for innovation is the same; the rate of iteration is the differentiator.

If Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures are the components to nature’s scientific method, what does that look like in the process of technological innovation? This biological framework can be applied to the process of innovation related to technology. An innovator can only iterate and make their contributions to technological progress to the capacity of their own Phylogenetic Inertia. In this case the constraints of the innovator’s inertia is the extent of their knowledge. Each attempt is a hypothesis that is tested against its practice, and the learning from its practice informs following iterations that makes the necessary adjustments. The adjustments from iteration to iteration are guided by the feedback produced in practice. Just like the species that rely on the feedback and iteration of its Phylogenetic Inertia and Ecological Pressures, an innovator can only stay disciplined to this framework. In systems that are complex and uncertain, with a number of external factors outside of one’s control, an innovator can only iterate to the capacity of their current knowledge, but it is up them to what rate of iteration they will adopt. Just like species reproductive rates that determine the aggregate amount of learning passed along generations, the rate of iteration determines amount of feedback that can be produced to expand knowledge and adjustments. This can be seen in unlikely innovators like the Wright Brothers, who witnessed others like Otto Lilienthal and Octave Chanute attempt the mastery of controlled flight. Through the observations of their predecessors, the Wright brothers calculated that in the five years dedicated to the discovery of controlled flight, Otto Lilienthal had only spent a total of 5 hours in actual flight and the rest of his time in theoretical study. The Wright brothers would adopt a different approach that would ultimately yield different results. The Wright Brother’s realized that the missing variable to the formula of flight was not mechanical, but skill. The brothers understood that controlled flight could only be achieved with the combination of knowledge and skill, and that skill could only be obtained from experience. Unlike others that previously attempted this feat, the Wright Brothers understood the only way to develop this experience was to put theory to practice, and at a rate sufficient enough to arrive at this discovery. That is why an environment like Kitty Hawk, North Carolina was an ideal environment that gave the Wright Brothers the time and space to iterate, and to iterate more often than others. For many others that had hoped to be the first discoverers of flight, they all faced the same uncertainty and the same infinite possibilities; the only difference was the Wright Brothers rate of iteration to navigate the unknowns to discovery. If innovation in technology and biology is a game of process of elimination, the one that is faster to eliminate non-solutions is the quickest at arriving to discovery. Like species that are adaptable and innovative, the Wright Brothers stayed disciplined to nature’s framework. The real artistry within that framework was their contribution to their capacity and learning — all from the rate of this trial and error.

“If innovation in technology and biology is a game of process of elimination, the one that is faster to eliminate non-solutions is the quickest at arriving to discovery.”

Contrary to their predecessors, the Wright brothers adopted an approach that allowed them to increase their learnings through constant iteration. More iteration meant more learnings.

Permission to Fail

In a world where there are so many things outside of your control, you are both powerful and powerless. As seen in both evolutionary biology and technology, you only have the power to control your destiny to a certain capacity (i.e. Phylogenetic Inertia) and the rest is outside of your control and by chance (i.e. Ecological Pressures). The one thing an innovator does have control over is the rate in which they repeat this process. Our world is made up of complex systems that tug and pull in different directions, and as seen in biology and in technology innovation, there is a scientific process that innovators stay disciplined to. Just as explorers that had charted across the world to unexplored lands, inventors developing technological advances never seen before, or even organisms evolving to new environments, innovators navigate a world of unknowns. But beyond the trepidation of those unknowns are infinite possibilities. What makes an individual an innovator is not that they know the answers, but it is that they know what questions to ask. In the process of discovery, questions lead to questions and those questions lead to even more questions. It is in these questions that navigate us through the unknowns to discovery. To start, we must first give ourselves the permission to fail, and fail often, and in that, we will arrive to the discovery our efforts and framework guides us to.

Kyle Ballarta

Written by

I do things. And occasionally stuff. www.kyle-ballarta.com/

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