Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in March 2024

Quotes for entrepreneurs curated in March 2024 on a them of thinking about the past and learning from the past.

Quotes for Entrepreneurs Curated in March 2024

My theme for this month’s quotes for entrepreneurs is thinking about the past and learning from the past.

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“As soon as men decide that all means are permitted to fight an evil, then their good becomes indistinguishable from the evil they set out to destroy.”
Christopher Dawson in “The Judgement of the Nations” (1942) [Archive.org]

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“Google is sitting on an enormous amount of cash, but if the company does lose AI, and AI in turn eats search, it will lose its core function, and become obsolete. Talent will leave, and Google will be reduced to a giant, slowly shrinking pile of cash.”
Mike Solana (@MicSolana)  in “Google’s Culture of Fear

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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”
William Faulkner in “Requiem for a  Nun” [Faded Page]

Reminds me of a quote from the movie Magnolia: “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

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“Powerful competitors may resist innovative threats and any effort to understand them. They increase investment in the older technology, taking it to unheard-of heights. But in most cases, this is a sign of impending death.”
James Utterback “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation” [edited]

One tweet condensed version of:

“A pattern emphasized in the cases in this study is the degree to which powerful competitors not only resist innovative threats, but actually resist all efforts to understand them, preferring to further entrench their positions in the older products. This results in a surge of productivity and performance that may take the old technology to unheard-of heights. But in most cases this is a sign of impending death.

Only rarely does the struggle of old ways against impending death drive the new from the market. Ironically, one of the defenses of the old against the new involves its adoption and incorporation, but in a defensive rather than an offensive posture. Examples include the steaming sailing ship, super sterilization of still refrigerated milk, film cameras stuffed with electronics to improve amateur picture-taking quality, and serial supercomputers with limited added-in parallel-processing capabilities.

James Utterback [MIT Home Page] in  “Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation

h/t Tom PetersThe Pursuit of Wow” page 187; these are examples of being unable to learn from the present and act on the likely trajectory of events. Probably driven by technology leaders at incumbents who fear they will lose status.

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“Events may seem to you to be a tangled mass of confusion at the moment. And yet we have some interesting threads to pull on. […] There is no point in using the word ‘impossible’ to describe something that has clearly happened, but cannot be explained by anything we know.”
Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

We can become prisoners of our expectations and paradigms. When told by his generals that crossing the Alps with elephants was impossible, Hannibal is reputed to have said “I shall either find a way or make one.

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“Mistakes are the currency of learning.”
Dr. Scott Pugh in “Youth Soccer: We’re Doing it Wrong” (2015)

He elaborates: “For a child to improve their skills and abilities, they must willingly submit themselves to the possibility of failure. This will only happen in an environment that is free of excess pressure, embarrassment, and ridicule. Enjoyment of the sport is critical for development.”

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Three slides from a 1979 Presentation at IBM entitled “The Computer Mandate”

In The Iterative World
The Project Never Ends
Because The System Never Stops
Changing And Growing
Because The System Is A Model
Of The Organization
And The Organization Never Stops
Changing And Growing
Another Slide from a 1979 IBM Training Session entitled “The Computer Mandate”

I like the way this illuminates the concept of sociotechnical systems: where the human and technical aspects of an organization intertwine and co-evolve.

Putting a Bad System on Line is
Like Pouring Gasoline Into a Fire
Another Slide from a 1979 IBM Training Session entitled “The Computer Mandate”

System upgrades and the introduction of new systems can provide significant improvements if done well, or impose substantial setbacks when done poorly.

“A computer can never be held accountable, therefore a computer must never make a management decision.”
Slide from a 1979 IBM Training Session  entitled “The Computer Mandate”

I fear that the value of this injunction will be rediscovered several times as some rush to put increasingly opaque algorithms in charge of increasingly important aspect of our lives.

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“I think the majority of our opportunities in 2024 are going to lie outside of our comfort zone. We have to spend more time exploring, stumbling, and shining our light into more obscure and unknown markets.”
Frument Barns

Frument said this in a recent Coactify meeting and we adopted a variation as our motto for 2024. It’s time to shift back to the explore end of the explore-exploit continuum; what got us here is not going to carry us forward, new ideas are needed.

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“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.”
James Burke

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“There is the past that just lapses away, never to be remembered, and there are the moments that crystallize and remain available and they’re not always the obvious ones. Sometimes the feeling that all those old times are going on, just behind a thick curtain.”

Sven Birkerts (@svenbirkerts)

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“The surest measure of the things that really matter in life is that they generate anniversaries and reunions.”
Robert Brault in “Monday Musing

I think key transitions are also marked by celebrations or other group ceremonies. How does your startup welcome new employees, recognize solid performance, and say goodbye to valued team members? How do you onboard new customers and try to learn from them when they are leaving? What anniversaries do you celebrate and reunions do you attend?

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“Every aphorism is the amen of an experience.”
Hanz Kudszus

I have collected three other aphorisms by Hans Kudszus:

  1. October  2012 – “Routine is an early stage of decay.” Hans Kudszus
  2. June 2012 – “Where there’s no way there’s still a goal.” Hans Kudszus
  3. May 2014 – “Paths do not change when night falls; only the wanderer does.” Hans Kudszus

He has two books of aphorisms in German, unfortunately neither has been translated into English.

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“Through the veil of routine you sometimes glimpse what you are really doing.”
Aaron Haspel  in “Everything

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“Superhuman effort isn’t worth a damn unless it achieves results.”
Ernest Shackleton

I can remember a brief and somewhat tense exchange between John Chambers, SVP Sales, and Frank Marshall, VP of Engineering, at Cisco circa 1994 about a failed engineering effort.

Frank Marshall: “you have to understand how hard we worked on this!”
John Chambers: “you should not confuse effort with results.”

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Some man’s gone, he tried to run my life
He don’t know what he’s asking

He can’t even run his own life
Be damned if he’ll run mine

Jonathan Edwards Sunshine

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“You plan to create a result, reduce risk, and increase efficiency. A plan is a collection of predictions: if we take these actions in this order, we should get the following result.”
Steve Pavalina (condensed from “Clarity and Planning“)

When you can make highly accurate predictions, your plans can have a single thread (“these actions in this order”). Most real plans have evaluation steps that create branch points. Real plans look more like a decision tree than a simple sequence; however, as your ability to predict decreases, the value of contingencies and pre-planned alternatives increases. You increase your chance of achieving a desirable result, perhaps not the best one you were hoping for, but an acceptable one, given how circumstances turned out. A plan also creates trip wires: it tells you when inaction will foreclose options so that you understand when you need to decide on potential actions available to you, even with incomplete information.

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“From time to time, people suggest to me that scientists ought to give more consideration to social problems — especially that they should be more responsible in considering the impact of science upon society. It seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with the less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.

It seems to me that we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don’t put a full-time effort into them–the reasons being that we know we don’t have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much harder than scientific ones, and that we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about them.

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy — and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.”

Richard Feynman in “The Value of Science” (1955)

Taken from a transcript of a public address at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, held at Caltech November 2-4, 1955.

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“The unfinished is nothing.”
Henry F. Amiel Journal entry for August 13, 1865.

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Learning used to mean learning the answer. […] Learning must be a continuous process involving:

  1. Learning to re-perceive or re-interpret a situation,
  2. Learning how to apply that re-perception to the formulation of policy and the specification of action (including re-evaluation of policy and action).
  3. Learning how to implement those policies and intended actions, and
  4. Learning how to keep these three earlier requirements alive and open to continual revision

Donald N. Michael in “Barriers and Bridges to Learning in a Turbulent Human Ecology” (1995)

Essay collected in Barriers and Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions (1995) edited by Lance Gunderson, C. S. Hollings, and Stephen S. Light. Donald Michael had explored these concepts at length in “On Learning to Plan and Planning to Learn” (1973)

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“This is the new normal. Not long ago we looked to Silicon Valley as the place where dreams came from, but now it feels more like ground zero for the next dystopian nightmare.”
Ted Gioia in “They Praised AI at SXSW and the Audience Started Booing

Gioia concludes

You must be suspicious of tech leaders when…

  1. Their products and services keep getting worse over time.
  2. Their obvious goal is to manipulate and monetize the users of their tech, instead of serving and empowering them.
  3. The heaviest users of their tech suffer from depression, anxiety, suicidal impulses, and other negative effects as a result.
  4. They stop talking about quality, and instead boast incessantly about scalability, disruption, and destruction.
  5. They hide what their technology really does—resisting all requests for transparency and disclosure.
  6. They lock you into platforms, forcing you to use new ‘features’ and related apps if you want to access the old ones.
  7. They force upgrades you don’t like, and downloads you don’t want.
  8. Their terms of use are filled with outrageous demands and sweeping disclaimers.
  9. They destroy entire industries not because they offer superior products, but only because as web gatekeepers they have a chokehold on information and customer flow—which they use ruthlessly to kill businesses and siphon off revenues.

Every one of those things is happening right here, right now.”

Ted Gioia in “They Praised AI at SXSW and the Audience Started Booing

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“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
John F. Kennedy in “Sep-2-1962 Address at Rice University on Nation’s Space Effort”

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“All experience is a muddle, until we make a model to explain it. The model can clarify the muddles, but the model is never the muddle itself. “The map is not the territory”; the menu does not taste like the meal.”
Robert Anton Wilson in “Prometheus Rising

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“One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
Marshall McLuhan in War and Peace in the Global Village (1968)

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“Idea-Driven People come up with Ideas (and Results), more often than Results-Driven People come up with Results (and Ideas).”
Hugh MacLeod

h/t John Cook in “Idea People vs. Results People” who suggests two related fallacies:

  • People who are good at one thing must be bad at something else.
  • People who specialize in something must be good at it.

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Irving Janis in “Groupthink : psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes” (1982, p. 175) identifies  seven major defects in decision-making contribute to failures to solve problems adequately.

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives
  2. Incomplete survey of objectives
  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  4. Failure to reappraise initially rejected alternatives
  5. Poor information search
  6. Selective bias in processing information at hand
  7. Failure to work out contingency plans.

On page 10 of “Groupthink : psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes”  he spells them out (bullets and bolding added for clarity):

  • First, the group’s discussions are limited to a few alternative courses of action (often only two) without a survey of the full range of alternatives.
  • Second, the group does not survey the objectives to be fulfilled and the values implicated by the choice.
  • Third, the group fails to reexamine the course of action initially preferred by the majority of members from the standpoint of nonobvious risks and drawbacks that had not been considered when it was originally evaluated.
  • Fourth, the members neglect courses of action initially evaluated as unsatisfactory by the majority of the group: They spend little or no time discussing whether they have overlooked nonobvious gains or whether there are ways of reducing the seemingly prohibitive costs that had made the alternatives seem undesirable.
  • Fifth, the members make little or no attempt to obtain information from experts who can supply sound estimates of losses and gains to be expected from alternative courses of actions.
  • Sixth, selective bias is shown in the way the group reacts to factual information and relevant judgments from experts, the mass media, and outside critics. The members show interest in facts and opinions that support their initially preferred policy and take up time in their meetings to discuss them, but they tend to ignore facts and opinions that do not support their initially preferred policy.
  • Seventh, the members spend little time deliberating about how the chosen policy might be hindered by bureaucratic inertia, sabotaged by political opponents, or temporarily derailed by the common accidents that happen to the best of well-laid plans. Consequently, they fail to work out contingency plans to cope with foreseeable setbacks that could endanger the overall success of the chosen course of action.

Irving Janis in “Groupthink” page 10

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“Entrepreneurship is a creative process, and by its very nature, creativity comes as a surprise to us. To foresee an innovation is in effect to make it. If creativity were not unexpected, customers could demand it and expert planners could supply it by rote. An economy could be run by demand. But an economy of mind is necessarily impelled by Say’s Law (‘Supply creates it’s own demand.’), driven by the unforced surprises of human intellect.”
George Gilder in Microcosm page 63

Gilder returned to this theme many times, notably in a 2012 essay “Unleash the Mind” that I blogged about in “Entrepreneurship is the Launching of Surprises.”

“Under capitalism, wealth is less a stock of goods than a flow of ideas, the defining characteristic of which is surprise. Creativity is the foundation of wealth. […]  Entrepreneurship is the launching of surprises. […] Creativity cannot be planned because it is defined by information measured as surprise.”
George Gilder in “Unleash the Mind

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One assumption and three habits that enable persistence:

  • Assume that it’s going to take repeated trial and error to develop a product or service that customers value and that you can deliver reliably at a cost they are willing to pay.
  • Take small steps forward that involve a loss or setback you can afford if it does not work. Don’t go “all in” on a next step whose failure would mean you have to give up. Find a way to apply the Kelly criterion to the amount you are investing in the next leg of the journey. Always remember that reputation–unlike money or expertise–can be lost quickly and is only regained slowly. What’s worse is that people don’t always tell you when they have stopped trusting you, so the loss of social capital can take a while to discover.
  • Keep a log of your trials: adopting a scientific approach of formulating hypotheses, explicitly framing experiments, documenting key assumptions, and writing down the results.
  • Celebrate small wins and progress since you started. It’s too easy to focus on the distance you still need to travel and lose sight of recent accomplishments and how far you’ve come since you have started. Take time to celebrate what you have achieved and make sure to thank those who have helped you along the way.

From “SKMurphy Take” section of “Cultivate Habits That Enable Persistence and Learning

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“Sometimes you need to see something 20 times before it sinks in. And on the 19th time, you don’t know that the next time will be the one.”
John D. Cook (@JohnDCook)

Some insights are preceded by a “feeling of warmth” that you are converging on a solution to a problem. Others come “out of the blue” when you are showering, walking, daydreaming.

“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.”
Alfred North Whitehead

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“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
Cormac McCarthy in “No Country for Old Men”

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When asked what was the best asset a man could have, Albert Lasker–the most astute of all advertising men–replied, ‘Humility in the presence of a good idea.’ It is horribly difficult to recognize a good idea. I shudder to think how many I have rejected. Research can’t help you much, because it cannot predict the cumulative value of an idea, and no idea is big unless it will work for thirty years. […]

It will help you recognize a big idea if you ask yourself five questions:

  1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
  2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
  3. Is it unique?
  4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
  5. Could it be used for 30 years?

David Ogilvy in “Ogilvy on Advertising”

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“The past is strapped to our backs. We do not have to see it; we can always feel it.”
Mignon McLaughlin

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“It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” Alfred North Whitehead

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