An Antifragile Thanksgiving

November 21, 2017

I’m grateful for all the entrepreneurs who have spent time teaching me how to build their companies. Over these past few days, I have been reading the book Antifragile written by Nassim Taleb. In the book, he writes about many provocative things, but the one that sticks out with me this holiday is about innovation, and it harkens back to the original title of this blog that I started to write nearly 7 years ago: ex post facto.

Taleb entertains with his irreverence and his depth of thought. He images a new academic institution catering to birds - the Harvard-Soviet Department of Ornithology. In this department, a collection of 60-year-old professors dressed in black robes, dictate to a group of birds on the principles of flight in a form of English that is full of jargon interlaced with equations. It’s laughable to think birds would learn to fly this way. But this is the way that we teach innovation.

Reading history, we often reach the wrong conclusion that innovation like this:

Academia → Applied Science and Technology → Practice

Taleb argues innovation evolves this way:

Random Tinkering (antifragile) → Heuristics (technology) → Practice and Apprenticeship

Clay Christensen captured the idea when he said something along the lines of, “The next big thing will start out looking like a toy.

These innovations, which start out looking like toys, ultimately create broader theories, which are studied in academia and published, in a parallel loop:

Practice → Academic Theories → Academic Theories → ...

Taleb’s story of the Department of Ornithology reminded me of ex post facto, a Latin expression which means after-the-fact. When I first started writing this blog, I knew that I would never be able to predict the future, and that it would always be some kind of reportage on all the innovations that I was observing, created by the constellation of founders in Startupland.

When I’m asked why I became a venture capitalist, my answer is always the same: because it’s a job that offers an unlimited learning curve. For the inspiration and the privilege to learn from exceptional founders and teams, I’m very grateful.

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