A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With a Single Step
Paul Buchheit’s talk from Startup School, London 2014
I have been interviewing tech founders and innovators for the past five years. I have interviewed over 100 and probably watched double that but there is only one which I keep going back to.
In the summer of 2014, I attended Y Combinator’s Startup School in London and at the end of the day, I watched Paul Buchheit take to the stage. A quiet, unassuming man who read from his deck. I didn’t know what to expect… But his talk changed my life, and I think about it often. Here it is:
You’ve heard a lot of great startup advice today. This is going to be a little different.
I often advise startups that it’s better to seek deep appeal, to create something that a few people love, even if most people don’t get it right away. In that spirit, I’ve decided to share the technology and dreams that matter to me, with the hope that it will be very appealing to the right person. This is, after all, a business defined by outliers. Someone in this room is going to create something very important. That’s the person I’m hoping to reach.
We talk a lot about technology, and its ability to transform and improve the world. But technology is more than just transistors and algorithms. Those are just patterns on silicon. The technology that really drives the world are the patterns in your head. Those are the patterns that give rise to the patterns in silicon, the patterns in our society, and our whole concept of reality. Change those patterns, and you change your world. Maybe not overnight, but like steering the rudder on a great ship, a small change now makes a big difference later.
We often sweat life’s big decisions, but it’s the little decisions that matter the most — the ones we make thousands of times a day, often without even realizing it. The big decisions are the inevitable result of those small decisions. They steered the ship into port, created the conditions that gave rise to the situation. And then perhaps we feel that our hand has been forced, the big decision must be made, but really it was made by the thousands of small decisions leading up to it.
We all know the power of defaults. This is about my defaults, the things I keep top of mind and return to when I’m stuck, confused, or doubtful. It’s an effort to tune and improve my patterns, my technology.
First, I don’t know anything. That’s a warning. If you take this all on my authority, then you’re missing the point. You must own your own programming.
It’s also the first pattern.
If I believe that I already know the answer and possess the truth, then I’m not genuinely open to learning larger truths.
This is the danger of experience. We already know better, we already know that an idea or business won’t work. This is one reason that naive, young founders are often the ones who start the most successful companies — they just don’t know any better, and they’re often too arrogant to listen to those who do.
I don’t want to downplay the value of experience. This whole event is about sharing and learning from the experiences of others. But don’t be limited by our experiences. Just because it didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean it won’t work in the future. Likewise, what worked before may not work again.
This is especially important for startup founders. The best opportunities live in our collective blind spots. To most, they appear to be bad ideas, or simply unimportant. If everyone could see the opportunity, someone else would have already taken it.
In 1997, Larry and Sergey tried to sell Google for a million dollars. Fortunately, they were unable to find a buyer. The conventional wisdom of the time was that search was neither important, nor valuable.
Of course experience isn’t the only danger. Dogma and ideology are even worse. They provide us with the answers, and put boundaries around our thinking. Ignoring the dogma invites ridicule, or even punishment. I suspect that’s why more ideological societies are less innovative. If we aren’t free to wander outside the realms of conventional thinking, then we won’t happen upon the opportunities that others have missed.
Escaping dogma is hard. From the inside, it simply looks like truth and reality. Watch out for any belief that limits the range of your thinking and exploration. This includes logic and reason. They are useful tools, but just as often work to keep us trapped inside of exclusionary belief systems. If you believe yourself to be a rational person, then you’re in the trap.
To be innovative in our work, we need to evade the limitations of established thinking.
Which brings me to the second pattern: Kill all daemon processes.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with operating system internals, daemons are computer programs that run in the background performing various services, often invisible to the user. Sometimes they get out of control and start consuming all of the machine’s memory, processor, or other computing resources. This is one reason why your computer or phone often works better after a reboot.
I like using this as an analogy for the same kinds of loops that operate in our brains, like when a song gets stuck in your head. The more insidious loops are the voices of doubt, anger, and self-loathing that infect our minds. Often they are the internalized voices of our parents, peers, the media, or just random people on the Internet. Other times, they pose as our own voice, possibly one that has been there for as long as we can remember. Either way, these loops are often parasitic and limiting. Anytime we take a risk or move in a new direction, they are there to doubt and criticize us. Anytime we seek to escape dogma, they are there to ridicule and condemn us.
Creating an innovative new product often means spending years working on something that most people doubt the value of. It’s hard to do that with a head full of noise, voices telling us that we’re being foolish and should just cut our losses.
Before we launched Gmail, many people inside of Google thought that the whole project should be scrapped. One notable executive predicted that we would never even get to a million users. We can’t let those voices drag us down.
In order to grow, be free, and reclaim our mental resources, it helps to clear out these voices. It’s simple, yet very difficult, because they’ll keep coming back. But with practice, we get better.
Right now, stop, observe your breath, and enjoy a moment of stillness in your mind. The voices that keep interrupting the silence are the runaway processes. Keep dismissing them until there aren’t any left.
Our days are full of spare moments. Instead of filling them with Flappy Bird or Facebook, take the opportunity to find a calm and clear mind. Even if you don’t always succeed, it’s the practice that matters. Walking in nature also helps.
The voices will resist of course. Continuing to assert their own importance is one way they survive.
My response: Yes, and thank you. That’s the third pattern.
Life rarely goes the way we want it to. When we’re taking risks and trying something new, we should expect that it often won’t work out the way we had planned. And even if we try to keep our lives narrow and risk free, things still won’t work out the way we had planned. We can get angry and frustrated and stuck, or we can accept and move forward, assuming that whatever happened is somehow for the best.
I’ve found that this is a great predictor of success among startups. They all face setbacks, but some are able to take those setbacks and use them to their advantage. Others just keep slamming their head against the same wall, never making any real progress. Uber has been rather masterful at this. Here in London, they turned the taxi strike into a huge growth opportunity for themselves.
In my own life, I’ve observed that many of the best things are rooted in some of the worst events, and that I would not have one without the other. But this about the small decisions more than the big ones. Every day is full of setbacks and disappointments, but I do my best to say, “Yes, and thank you”, accepting it as a gift, however improbable that may seem at the time. This pattern has an almost magical way of transforming reality and maintaining the forward flow of life.
The ability to accept a greater range of outcomes opens the door to pattern number four: Choose the more interesting path.
People often ask how I decide which startups to invest in. There’s no simple answer, but this is a big part of it.
When I heard about Justin.tv in early 2007, my first response was to laugh and ask if they were serious. They said yes, so I offered to invest. The plan at the time was for Justin Kan to attach a camera to his head and stream it live on the Internet, 24/7. It seemed a little insane, but I was very curious to find out what would happen. I’ve found that that kind of interestingness is a very useful signal.
The immediate answer to, “What would happen?”, was a lot of people trolling Justin. Next they added the ability for anyone to stream their lives. Most of it was boring, or possibly illegal, but one thing really caught on: video game streaming. Eventually they changed their name to Twitch.tv to focus exclusively on competitive gaming. They are now one of the most valuable properties on the Internet. Their average daily viewer watches over 100 minutes per day, and they are the 4th largest source of US Internet traffic after Netflix, Google, and Apple.
I had no idea that would happen. I mainly invested because it sounded like an interesting experiment, and the founders seemed to genuinely believe that they were on to something.
Interestingness is a sign of unexplored or under-explored territory. If I already know what the outcome is going to be, that’s not very interesting. If it’s completely random, like gambling, that’s also not interesting. But I find that great startups exist in a space of productive uncertainty. Regardless whether they succeed or fail, I’m likely to learn something interesting.
That was my logic when joining Google in 1999. I expected that they would likely get squashed by the much larger Alta Vista, but the people were really smart, so I believed that I could learn a lot in the process.
In fact, I can guarantee success by simply redefining success to include learning something interesting. In this way, I’ve always succeeded, and also learned a lot :)
If your startup has only one definition of success, then you’re setting yourself up for failure.
It’s tragic how many people are sacrificing their lives on some startup that they don’t really care about, in pursuit of some external success they’ll likely never achieve. Personally, I think it’s a mistake.
Which leads me to pattern number five: Love what you do.
It’s often said that you should “Do what you love”, but that’s mostly bad advice. It encourages people to grind away their lives in pursuit of some mostly unattainable goal, such as being a movie star or a billionaire startup founder. And even if they do make it, often the reality is nothing like they imagined it would be, so they’re still unhappy.
Do what you love is in the future. Love what you do is right now. As with the other patterns, it’s meant to guide the small decisions that we make every moment of every day. It’s less about changing what you do, and more about changing how you do it.
One of the problems with having a goal-oriented, extrinsic mindset is that it treats the time between now and task completion as an annoying obstacle to be endured. If you’re doing something that is difficult, uncertain, and takes a long time, such as building a new product or company, and you have that mindset, then you’re likely gambling away a big chunk of your life. Subconsciously, you may also compensate by choosing smaller, more realistic goals, and that’s unfortunate. Plus, it’s unpleasant.
When I was working long hours at Google, it wasn’t because they were whipping us to work harder. I would have quit. I was doing it because I genuinely love building things. It wasn’t all fun of course, but I typically enjoyed at least 80% of my day.
“Do what you love” treats “what you love” as a fixed thing, but it’s not. I used to hate running. I would sometimes force myself to run a few miles because it’s supposed to be healthy, but I never liked it. Then I read a book that said we are born to run, and that it can be fun. Inspired, I decided to try running just for fun, focus on the quality of every step, and forget about the goal completion aspect of it. Very quickly, I learned to enjoy running, and over time I’ve transformed my entire relationship with fitness and exercise to be oriented more toward enjoyment.
Naturally, this more intrinsic approach ultimately improves the quality of our efforts, which generally leads to greater extrinsic rewards as well. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation are best when they are both pointed in the same direction.
Real work always seems to involve a certain amount of unpleasant, grinding effort though, and startups often have a lot of it. It’s like having a baby. It’s 5% cute, adorable moments, and 95% dirty diapers and vomit.
The key to loving these more unpleasant moments is meaning. If we genuinely care about and believe in our mission, then those difficult times begin to take on a more heroic quality.
Although it’s critical for a startup to have very immediate and actionable plans, such as write code and talk to users, I believe it’s also important to maintain a meaningful and inspiring vision.
The sixth, and final pattern for today is one that I borrowed from Google: Maintain a healthy disregard for the impossible.
I think Larry Page learned this as a kid at summer camp, and to me it represents the true innovative spirit of the company. Now that Google is huge and many have grown cynical about the company, it’s easy to dismiss such things. But I remember when it was a tiny startup that nobody had heard of, and I had to explain to people that it was like Yahoo minus all of the features other than search. People would just give me this sad look that seemed to say, “I’m sorry you can’t get a real job”.
But inside the company there were these absurdly ambitious ideas that made it feel like we were going to take over the world. It was an exciting place to be.
Larry wanted to store and search the whole web in memory, even though our machines only had 1/4 GB of RAM. It was unrealistic at the time, but Moore’s law moves fast and very soon we were doing it, but only because everyone’s thinking was already oriented in that direction.
He also wanted self-driving cars that would deliver hamburgers. That hasn’t happened yet, but I bet it will.
For me, potentially impossible goals are much more inspiring than realistic ones. I’d rather fail at something awesome, than succeed at something inconsequential.
As with many of the other patterns, this one is about continually shedding the limitations of outdated thinking.
For me, startups are more than just a clever way to make money. They are machines for harnessing the fire of human self-interest, creating a self-sustaining reaction capable of rapidly transforming the world. Self-interest is often treated as if it were dirty or wrong, but NASA didn’t get to the moon by vilifying gravity.
It’s often assumed that business is all about money, but to me that’s like saying that rockets are all about rocket fuel. On some level it’s true. You won’t even make it off the launch pad without fuel. But that myopic view misses out on the larger purpose and mission of the machine. Certainly some businesses really are about nothing more than making money, but among the truly significant founders I’ve known, there’s always a larger purpose. It’s not just a nihilistic pursuit of rocket fuel.
Before I finish, I want to mention my impossible goal.
We now, for the first time ever, have the technology and resources necessary to make the world a great place for everyone. We can provide adequate food, housing, education, and healthcare for everyone, using only a fraction of our labor and resources. This means that we can put an end to wage-slavery. I don’t have to work. I choose to work. And I believe that everyone deserves the same freedom I have. If done right, it’s also economically superior, meaning that we will all have more wealth.
We often talk about how brilliant or visionary Steve Jobs was, but there are probably millions of people just as brilliant as he was. The difference is that they likely didn’t grow up with great parents, amazing teachers, and an environment where innovation was the norm. Also they didn’t live down the street from Steve Wozniak.
Economically, we don’t need more jobs. We need more Steve Jobs. When we set everyone free, we enable the outliers everywhere. The result will be an unprecedented boom in human creativity and ingenuity.
And now the impossible part. First we have to learn how to get along with each other, and with ourselves.
I’m looking for full-stack hackers. People who understand that technology is more than just patterns in silicon. The same patterns and systems of patterns exist everywhere. Capitalism is a technology. Like the internal combustion engine, it’s tremendously valuable and transformative, but it’s not beyond improvement. The same goes for government, religion, and everything else. We have an incredible future ahead of us, but we won’t get there by clinging to obsolete patterns.
As founders, we must start small, and work with the grain of what is. The path is never obvious, and innovation happens in the most unexpected ways. The personal computer was originally dismissed as a toy. If you think Instagram is just a collection of photo filters, you’re missing the big picture. Maybe photo sharing won’t lead directly to world peace, but helping people to see the world through the eyes of others looks like a step in the right direction to me. And they grew to over 200 million users in less than four years. That’s larger than most countries. That’s the power of a startup.
As Richard Feynman said, “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to.” Don’t be discouraged by people who dismiss your efforts as trivial just because you aren’t curing cancer or traveling to Mars. The patterns I’ve presented today are about developing an independent mind, unburdened by the limitations of other people’s thinking. Then you can judge for yourself what is worthwhile, and move forward with the conviction necessary to do something great. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.