How to Succeed with Certainty
In 1983, Andy Grove knew that his company, Intel, was in trouble. Its core business, DRAM memory chips, a technology they had pioneered, was facing stiff competition from the Japanese. Both margins and market share were declining rapidly and the future seemed bleak.
Rather than stay and fight over what remained, Grove chose to bet the company on microprocessors. The rest, as they say, is history and Intel’s dominance today can be traced back to that fateful decision.
How did he know for sure that he was making the right decision? Is there a way to be certain?
Have a Clear Vision?
If you have a coherent and distinct idea about where you want to go, then the details should take care of themselves, right? Even Einstein said that his imagination was more important than any intelligence he may have had.
On the other hand, Jeffery Skilling at Enron had a vision too. So did Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom. Both were responsible for historic flameouts. It seems that big ideas end in disaster at least as often as they lead to success. Visionary leaders are hailed; then often reviled. The world moves on.
Even in Einstein’s case, his intuition led him astray. It was his inability to abandon his conception of how the universe worked that led to deny the evidence of quantum mechanics, a field that he, in fact, had initiated.
“God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” he famously said.
“Einstein, stop telling God what to do!” Niels Bohr retorted. Bohr, along his protégé Heisenberg, won the day and Einstein’s career was effectively finished. In much the same way, Einstein rose to fame in the first place because his predecessor, Max Planck, was blinded by his own vision.
Build up from Solid Principles?
Rene Descartes believed that you could be certain if you start with facts that you are sure of and build up from there. That’s how he came up with the immortal phrase, Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am). Unfortunately, it never went any further than that and his Rationalist school was eventually abandoned.
Well, maybe not completely foresaken. Many managers today go in search of the perfect system. They develop rock solid operating principles and adhere to them religiously. Inevitably, the system fails, they realize their mistake and make the necessary corrections to form a truly perfect system…until that one fails too. On and on it goes…
In 1931, Kurt Gödel published his famous incompleteness theorems, which proved that any logical system built on axioms was bound to contradict itself. In essence, every system is necessarily incomplete or inconsistent. Every program is flawed and will crash given enough time, no matter how good the underlying principles are.
Wait and See?
One way you can be certain is to just simply watch events as they unfold. I am certain, for instance, that the Soviet Union fell. In that sense, I possess knowledge of events that the world’s best intelligence services, filled with thousands of people smarter than me, were unable to predict.
Unfortunately, you can’t do much about events that have passed, so this information is of limited value. Andy Grove wasn’t 100% sure about microprocessors, but it was undeniable that Intel was getting killed by the Japanese in DRAM memory chips.
In other words, he was sure that if he did nothing, he would certainly fail. He succeeded not because his path was clear, but because he had the guts to take it even though it was dimly lit.
Sustainable Risk Taking
A few years ago I was listening to some Hollywood guy get interviewed on the radio. He was asked, “What makes the difference between success and failure in Hollywood?” His answer was interesting.
He said that of all the people he knew starting out, everybody who lasted more than two years eventually made it. It was only those that became discouraged and quit that failed.
Rick Chapman, in his excellent book In Search of Stupidity, argues that Microsoft became the world’s most dominant software company mainly by avoiding any huge mistakes that would kill or cripple the business.
He points to others, such as Borland and Ashton-Tate, who were no less promising, but bet everything on a stupid idea. If you can’t be certain of your vision or your operating principles, it makes sense to hedge your bets so that you’ll be around to take more risks in the future.
A Tale of Ordinary Madness
At the age of 35, Charles Bukowski lay penniless and near death in a charity ward from a bleeding ulcer that was caused by more than a decade of heavy drinking, tawdry rooming houses and questionable women.
He later gained fame and fortune by writing about his sordid lifestyle and was even portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the movie, Barfly. In his seventies, he was interviewed by a reporter who asked him look back and account for his life. To what did he owe his enormous success?
“Endurance,” he said.