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Preparedness vs. Intelligence

So, buy information pills what do knife fighting and shipping software have in common? They both show the advantage of being prepared over being “smart”. Of course, price these are not either/or choices. But there are two recent things I’ve stumbled on that make the point that being too intelligent, pill or too smart for your own good can either get you killed and/or crash your start-up.

Here’s a great talk that Seth Godin gave at the Behance 99% conference. In signature fashion, Godin’s talk seems to be about something goofy (complete with a rubber chicken prop), namely, our “lizard brain”. In fact, he spends most of his 18 minute talk extolling the virtues of focusing one’s efforts on shipping rather than perfecting things. His key insight is that being successful at shipping requires that we learn to quiet our lizard brains: that part of us that instinctively underlies our fight or flight system. He’s right, of course, but it begs the question: how do we do this?

The answer, according to Max Klein, lies in the lesson we can learn from the preparation of Israeli commandos. Klein says: “Being intelligent is like having a knife. If you train every day in using the knife, you will be invincible. If you think that just having a knife will make you win any battle you fight, then you will fail.”

I’ve been thinking a lot, especially in the work that Matt Milan & I have been doing on Innovation Parkour, about the importance of practice. I have been studying this in the context of things like yoga and surfing as well as in professional communities of practice. One of the interesting things that keeps coming up is about using practice as strategy for dealing with volatility. What I find particularly fascinating is the connection that some make between the social dimension of practice and the cultivation of what I call “stillness”: a kind of deliberate calm that prevents people from panicking or behaving counterproductively.

In the documentary, “Strapped”, about the innovation of tow-in surfing, several people in the film make this point, of how the social group formed by the Strapped Crew was crucial to what they were trying to accomplish: “these guys have united because of how many times they’ve been in there”…”enabling one another to ride these waves and do it safely”…”you have to be able to think really clearly about how you are gonna get out of that mess”.

It turns out that even in activities where achievement looks very individual, like surfing, there is a crucial element to learning and innovation that leads people to practice in groups. Part of this is obvious, peer learning is a clear strategy for advancement in many things, but it is interesting to note that people also use groups to create safety and comradeship to bolster courage and support risk.

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