Thinking Like The Greats

I get really fired up when I think about one of The Greats, one of the people or teams of people in my field who I think are truly exceptional, who have contributed substantial work and who are rewarded copiously for it. They’re loved by some and reviled by others, but the common quality is they change things.

These are my heroes, the ones who make me want to get out of bed every day and be better than the day before at what I do. They set a bar for me, and I don’t want to be just like them, but I want to be great in my own ways. I’m not looking for fame, I’m only looking to be one of the Greats. I’ve been studying them for a while now and here’s what I’ve picked up so far, that they all have in common:

  1. They have Powerful Ideas.

  2. They act on those ideas.

In the simplest, most essential distillation, that’s what they do.

A Powerful Idea isn’t just a good idea, but instead one that lets us see farther. John W. Maxwell has this to say:

What makes an idea “powerful” is what it allows you to do; […] Powerful ideas are those that are richly or deeply connected to other ideas; these connections make it possible to make further connections and tell stories of greater richness and extent (p 187).

These are ideas like Hypertext, the Graphical User Interface, Cut Copy and Paste. Things that are simple in their own respect, but enable a tremendous new reach for humanity. They are not goals or destinations, but instead vehicles for getting us to the next step.

These ideas often don’t appear in dreams or apparitions but are instead culminations of years of dedicated study across a diverse set of fields. Alan Kay studied biology in university, which enabled him to see and create a design for Object Oriented Programming. He modeled computer programs after living cells. Many of Bret Victor’s great insights arise from an application of Edward Tufte’s information visualization principles: Show the Data and Show Comparisons.

When you study the powerful ideas of any field, you’ll almost always see the ideas emerging from analogy and synthesis of ideas from many other, seemingly unrelated fields. The insights often become obvious once you start looking past your own domain.

But a powerful idea is often not enough. Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think described the Memex, a mechanical, computerized contraption resembling a steampunk lovechild of the World Wide Web and Wikipedia, in 1945, and yet Bush’s work largely remained in obscuria for nearly fifty years. Why? Because the ideas were ahead of the technology at the time and they couldn’t be built. It’s not a failing of the quality of the invention (da Vinci hardly never could build any of his own designs at the time), but it strikes an important chord: to be a Great, you really need to be able to build it.

I think it’s critical to get these ideas into some form of tangible space, whether it’s a working prototype or a full-fledged product. People need to be able to see and use it, because an idea isn’t set in stone. It needs to be living and evolving. There needs to be a discourse and that’s certainly part of what makes the Greats so great, is they participate in this discourse.

These aren’t the only things the Greats seem to do, but they are the most fundamental and everything I’ve noticed seems to emerge from them. They’re important traits to know, but the most important thing isn’t to set out to emulate. It’s important not to walk in their footsteps but to instead stand on their shoulders.

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