In the pre-dawn hours of 20 May 1927, a custom-built, single engine, fixed wing plane was being prepared at Roosevelt Airfield in New York state. Four experienced pilots had recently died, although two were assumed missing, attempting what Charles Lindbergh was about to attempt. A nonstop transatlantic flight from Garden City, New York to Paris, France. This was well before the time of radar or GPS systems, the instruments included a temperature gauge, a clock, an altimeter, a tachometer, an airspeed indicator and a liquid magnetic compass — this was a very basic set-up. The weather had been patchy with thunder storms covering a majority of the 3,600 miles (5,800kms) for days prior. Lindbergh had no idea what he faced.
Lindbergh was willing to explore the boundaries of what was generally accepted as possible. A bomber with a crew of two people had made the flight from Newfoundland to Ireland eight years prior. However, the journey from America to France had never been made. To do so would be a triumph of distance flying and increase the awareness about planes and air safety generally. If we only operate inside the bounds of what’s acceptable, then, to summarise Bruce Lee, we put limits on everything we do and it will spread to your work and into your life.
The limits of what’s acceptable can be conceptualized with the Overton window. The range of policies that will be politically acceptable over time will fit into the window of discourse. Over time, this window can shift (where men put their hands during a group photo n.b. Keanu Reeves covering his bases in case the window shifts on him) or expand (traditionally men paid for a date, then it became more common to split the bill, and now it’s acceptable for the woman to pay — unheard of decades prior). At the edges of the Overton window, views are perceived to be “unthinkable” or “radical” until they become “acceptable” and eventually “policy.” The views around slavery followed this transition –the initial policy was ‘people could be owned as property’, which after some push and shove, changed to reflect “all men are created equal.”
Howard Marks has written about how to do well in investing, which also applies to other areas of life as well. Put simply, to do well, your ideas need to be non-consensus and correct. Many times, when you take a non-consensus stance, your idea exists (it’s important to separate the idea from the observer) at the edge of the Overton window.
Paul Graham built on this concept recently with The Four Quadrants of Conformism. Most people in a society are passively conventional-minded, they’re happy to go along with the status quo. They like to operate inside of the Overton window. They might operate at one end of the Overton window (politically left or right) but their views will be justifiable by the majority.
Today, the aggressively conventional-minded form the Cancel Crew. They aren’t afraid to call out (“Cancel”) anyone that it attempting to operate outside of the bounds of what they perceive to be acceptable. Passively conventional-minded people will go with the flow.
It’s the aggressively independent-minded people that are willing to question the status quo and form opinions from first principles. At times, this will result in opinions that sit outside of the Overton window. This means that they become an active target of those that happily sit inside. Sensing a threat outside the camp, the aggressively conventional-minded will round the wagons and call up the passively conventional-minded to protect their ideology from attack.
While the non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic wasn’t without risk, there were a number of risks that Lindbergh was able to mitigate based on his experience as a pilot. He worked with the engineer to conceptualize and create the Spirit of St Louis for long-distance flight. He also had no way of communicating with the outside world as he set out to achieve his goal as he had sacrificed the weight that a radio would entail for greater range. He created a situation where he was confident of the outcome based on his experience rather than rely on conventional wisdom to drive his decisions — conventional wisdom suggested that three-engine planes were safer for long-distance flying but they required additional fuel, which added further engineering challenges.
It’s lonely on the outside and it should be. Everyone loves to say that they’re contrarian but does it really matter if you only stand against the popular opinion? That’s just the inverse of accepting conventional wisdom. Not that different at all. The truly interesting ideas and people are willing to sit in the rain, outside of conventional institutions and opinions while they work to bring their view of the world in to reality. The passively independent-minded would be happy to wait until their view of the world becomes a reality.
Lindberg knew that he would be alone for the 33-hour duration of the flight. He had no idea what would happen if he ran into the thunderstorms that he was following as he crossed the Atlantic. He could not have perceived all of the obstacles that he’d encounter, such as when the landing gear began to ice up and the plane inexplicably slowed dropping altitude. He put his life savings and his life on the line to explore the edge of what was conventionally perceived to be possible with aviation at the time.
To be successful at anything, you need to be willing to be lonely and operate outside of what’s conventionally accepted. It might take time for the idea to catch on and you might need a little luck. Luck is like being struck by lightning. You’ll find a lot more of it if you run into thunderstorms carrying a ten-foot metal pole. What are you going to do the next time it rains?
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