On a snowy day in late 1927, a young corporate executive looked down past his toes, past the trusses of the bridge he was standing atop, and stared into the choppy waters of Lake Michigan.
Earlier that year, his first daughter had died and he had lost his job as president of a building company.
For years, he had been plagued by a fear of failure and now it had all come true.
He had no job, no savings to fall back on, and his wife had just given birth to his second daughter. With no employment prospects and a hungry family, he had resolved to jump off a bridge so his family could get the life insurance payout. Standing on the bridge looking down, he had a realization that would define the remainder of his life.
If he was willing to end his life, he had nothing to lose by trying to live in ways he had not yet imagined.
Seeing as he was already prepared to die, whatever time he had left could simply be viewed as an experiment to see what he could contribute to humanity. It didn’t matter if it didn’t work out, it was all gravy.
That man was Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, who became one of the most productive scientists of the 20th century. He published over thirty books, invented the term Spaceship Earth and designed the geodesic dome.
Late in his life, he cited that moment as when he overcame his fear of failure. He began to view his life as an experiment to be the crucial turning point for what became an immensely productive life.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Thinking Fast and Slow, the life’s work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, has come to serve as the bedrock model of behavioral economics.
It distinguishes between two systems within the brain:
System 1 operates automatically and quickly, without effort or voluntary control. If you’ve ever found yourself halfway through a bag of chips you didn’t even realized you had opened, that was System 1.
System 2 allocates attention to intentional mental activities. It’s associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. System 2 is at work when you’re focusing all your attention and energy on a single, challenging problem.
What Fuller recognized standing on the bridge was that he could view his life as an experiment, in which part of himself (System 1) was the subject of the experiment and another part of himself (System 2) was the scientist conducting the experiment.
As Fuller’s career attests, this mindset has practical applications for how to overcome a fear of failure.
How To Overcome Your Fear of Failure: The Bucky Method
Hedge Fund Manager Ray Dalio calls this the “two yous:”
“Think of it as though there are two yous- you as the designer and overseer of the plan to achieve goals [you(2)/system 2] and you as one of the participants in pursuing that mission [you(1)/system 1]. You(1) are a resource that you(2) can use to get what you(2) wants, but by no means are you the only resource. To be successful, you(2) has to be objective about you(1)”
For the sake of clarity, let’s call you(2)/system 2 “investor-you.” This is the you standing outside the system looking in about how to best allocate resources which includes you(1)/system 1 which we’ll call “operator-you.”
When operator-you is at the bottom of a bag of potato chips which investor-you didn’t want to eat in the first place, investor-you can design a better experiment in the future by making sure not to put chips on the shopping list, storing them on a tall shelf that is harder to get to, or pouring only part of the bag into a bowl first.
Investor-you goes through a three-stage loop:
- Decide what investor-you wants, what are your goals?
- Investor-you then builds a machine to achieve those goals, deploying different resources at your command, including operator you.
- That machine produces outcomes which investor-you then analyzes and uses to adjust the goal
Investor-me can deploy salesman-me, writer-me, manager-me, or marketer-me without getting attached.
Like a diligent investor, Investor-me lays out a thesis with defined timelines, expectations, and, most importantly, safety procedures.
Let’s contrast two people with the same objective, and see how they would approach the problem differently.
The first says “I’m an author-author. I want to write books.” So they do the logical thing: they write a book. It sells very few copies. There are now more books getting published than ever before, and they haven’t done anything to stand out. They double down and write more books — “I am an author!”
Nothing ever takes off.
The second person says “I’m an investor-author. I want to write books.” They write a book and sell very few copies. They then step back, look at the new outcomes they’ve gotten from the first investment and say “If my goal is to write book for a living and I invest time in learning marketing, then I could sell more books, and I could get to a point where I could write full time much sooner.”
They come up with a new thesis to allocate some of their time to marketing, and gradually get better at it. They sell more books and are able to start writing full time more quickly.
This is a simplistic example, but it achieves the same ends Buckminster Fuller found so powerful: it transforms failure into learning.
So how do you apply The Bucky Method to your life? Here are the five principles of The Bucky Method:
1. Treat Failure as Feedback, Not Fatal
In the example of two authors trying to write a book, each figure has different reactions to their first book doing poorly.
The author-author sees it as a failure. He is an author that writes unpopular books. The investor-author sees it as feedback. He is an investor-author that now has better data to inform his next hypothesis.
This is one reason I have found planning in 90-day sprints to be so helpful for improving my personal effectiveness.
Each ninety days is an experiment in moving towards a long-term goal. Your role during those 90 days is simply to play out the thesis. If you are trying to start a business, and realize that you don’t like that business or the market is too small, that’s simply feedback to change your longterm goals and come up with a new thesis.
You can also still take what you learned over those 90 days and apply it to future projects. You have not lost 90 days, you have acquired valuable, proprietary data.
Thomas Edison embodied this principle:
“I never allow myself to become discouraged under any circumstances. I recall that after we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed ‘to find out anything.’ I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way. We sometimes learn a lot from our failures if we have put into the effort the best thought and work we are capable of.”
The result? By the time of his death, Edison owned 1,093 patents. He didn’t have a single light bulb moment of insight, his light bulb stayed on.
2. Have Strong Views, Weakly Held
In 1965 Arno A. Penzias and Robert W. Wilson, of Bell Laboratories, were testing a sensitive horn antenna. They discovered a low level of microwave background “noise,” like the kind of electrical noise which produces “snow” on an old television screen.
Their strong view was that the noise was caused by the instrument they were using, so they worked on eliminating it to be able to get more accurate readings. Even as they strongly believed they were correct, they weren’t attached to this view: they were open to changing the belief and sought out other explanations.
When they found a group at Princeton that had predicted there would be low levels of noise left over from the Big Bang, they submitted their data as proof of the Big Bang, and subsequently won the Nobel Prize.
Had they remained fixated on fixing their instrumentation (their initial strong view), instead of being open to changing their opinions, they likely would never have realized what they’d found: A little observation about a little thing called the Big Bang, from which everything (literally, all the things) resulted.
Good investors change their minds quickly. If you tell them something that changes their opinion, they don’t feel ego bruised about making a prior investment, they just change their position. You’ve given them a leg up on the market.
This is difficult because cultural mores frequently run counter to this. Political candidates are eviscerated for “flip-flopping,” also known as “changing your mind after getting new information.”
The investor-author that thought writing more books was the solution had a strong hold on his view that blocked out alternative explanations. By applying the Bucky Method, it let the second author realize that building up his marketing skills, in addition to writing a book, was a better path.
3. Double Down on Strengths, Don’t Worry About Weaknesses
One of the great disservices done by modern education is that it programs us to worry about fixing our weaknesses not doubling down on our strengths. If you have a student that excels in Math and Physics, but does terribly in English Literature, what do schools do?
They put her in extra study classes for English literature.
This makes no sense if you come at the issue like an investor. If you had an employee who was amazing at sales but terrible at product development, would you make them spend more time doing product development and less time doing sales?
Obviously not, you’d let them do sales full time and hire someone else to do product development.
LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has observed that “most strengths have corresponding weaknesses. If you try to manage or mitigate a given weakness, you might also eliminate the corresponding strength.”
Hoffman is not well organized. But, he suspects his day-to-day chaos partially enables his creativity as an investor and entrepreneur.
Remember that investor-you can use many resources, of which operator-you is only one.
I have the worst rote memory of anyone you know. I don’t know any of my family members’ birthdays and I don’t know what I had for breakfast yesterday. Investor-me doesn’t worry about this too much because he can invest in a smartphone that has reminders on it. As long as operator-me has reminders, his poor rote memory is not a problem (or, well, less of a problem).
Instead of trying to eliminate your weaknesses, look for ways to double down on your strengths and use other resources as part of your machine.
4. Manage Your Downside Risk
The investor mindset also means you need to manage your downside risk. Just as an investor wouldn’t invest all her money without a plan to take it out if the company started to fail, you need to decide what you can afford to lose.
Research has shown the popular narrative that people who start businesses don’t invest their life savings in an idea, they decide what they can afford to lose and keep the rest of the chips off the table.
Investor-you can decide: “I will invest six months of my time and $XXX into trying to achieve this outcome.” Then operator-you gets to work.
Once the six months and the money is up, you take a step back, analyze all the new outcome data and decide either that it’s working well and you should keep doing it or that another line of investing is likely to be more fruitful.
By deciding what you can afford to lose up front, if something doesn’t go as well as hoped, it’s not an existential crisis that’s going to end up with you on the street. It’s something that you knew was possible and so you can simply use it as feedback for making better hypotheses.
Edison didn’t do any experiments that were going to end his career if they failed. Investor-Edison knew most were likely to fail, planned for it, then fully committed Operator-Edison to making it work.
It’s important to make the scope and deliverables clearly defined before, because once you’ve started the experiment, your ego is involved, which is fine.
However, you need to understand that the success of that one experiment does not define your success overall, it’s just one iteration.
5. Be Process Driven, Not Goal Driven
The development of the scientific method in the 13th century was a watershed moment in history, but not for the reason most believe. It wasn’t “invented”, it was merely formalized. For hundreds of years prior, there had been people doing the steps, they just hadn’t realized what they were doing. They’d stumbled on the method by trial and experiment.
To the rest of the world, these people seemed like rogue geniuses or magicians. How could they make all these discoveries seemingly out of thin air?
Once it was written down, it was clear that there was a process and, if it was systematically followed, more discoveries were to be had. In the eight hundred years since the general acceptance of the method, there has been more scientific discovery than in all of human history preceding it.
Many successful people seem to have some magic power, but in reality, they are following a process they’ve discovered, through trial and error, and internalized.
A scientist wouldn’t start an experiment by making his objective: “Make amazing discovery.”
He would have a simple testable hypothesis and a procedure for proving or disproving it. Though his hope, in the long run, is to make an amazing discovery, he knows that the fastest way to get there is to prove (or disprove) the hypothesis as quickly as possible.
The worst thing a scientist can do is leave a hypothesis in limbo. By quickly disproving, he can move on. Edison is reported to have said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” That’s a big discovery that only came from a lot of disproved hypotheses.
We make this same mistake in our businesses and careers. We start with the goal of, “make an amazing career,” instead of focusing on something discreet then quickly proving or disproving it.
This is another reason I like planning in 90-day sprints. If I choose something to work on that’s both falsifiable and within my control like “write 500 words every day”, then I can focus on executing that goal rather than worrying about if it is the right goal.
If it doesn’t get the results I want, that is data to make better future hypotheses. I am judging myself not by whether I was a magician that knew how things would work out at the start, but on whether I followed the plan I created.
It’s also demoralizing if you don’t hit the initial goal.
Instead of viewing it as feedback, you view it (and yourself) as a failure.
In the end, no investor-you can guarantee a single investment is successful — but they can control their long-term returns by following a simple process.
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Originally published at taylorpearson.me.