Thoughts on time and personal innovation

There’s a sense in which nothing happens suddenly. What we experience as sudden is precisely that: something that’s sudden for us.

There’s a famous line from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises—a man asked how he went bankrupt replies, “gradually and then suddenly.” I remembered that line again while listening to a podcast a few years ago on which author Matt Ridley said something I found so striking I wrote it down:

“Most of the time, innovation… looks disruptive when you’re looking backwards, but at the time, it’s surprisingly gradual… The first version of a new technology looks surprisingly like the last version of the old technology.”
—Matt Ridley, How Innovation Works (affiliate link)

As Ridley tells it, the first seeds of innovation grow underground, hidden in time, and then one morning, the seedling peeks above ground. I wrote in my essay, “The past is very present”, about how time can be a reservoir of energy.

Well, if you think about it, what’s happening in compounding is you’re doing a little, but repeatedly. Over and over and over again, with no immediately visible results (which is the bit that is so difficult). But with time (where the magic happens) a point comes when it “suddenly” blows up.… In a sense, what’s happening is time acting as sort of a reservoir of energy. During the time your actions seemed to not produce results, they weren’t being lost. They were being preserved, being accumulated, and then when the whole thing reaches critical mass—boom.

Nothing is sudden, including innovation. Everything takes time, including the future.

To be clear, though, by “innovation”, I hope you’re not thinking only of fancy new products from exciting companies and designers. No, I’m also talking about personal development, which, when you think about it, is a kind of internal innovation.

In making a life change, even if it’s a small one like starting to work out or learning to communicate better, there’s often a moment where you re-imagine your own self and future. Sometimes, that moment happens before you start acting, and sometimes you’ve already been taking action before you begin to wonder what might happen if you see the new path through. But either way, if that too isn’t innovating, I don’t know what is. We might even call it personal innovation.

The future looks worse at the start

I’m also particularly struck by the implications of Ridley’s point on what it means to be original. He reminds us that what looks like sudden and disruptive innovation is, in reality, often gradual: “The first version of a new technology looks surprisingly like the last version of the old one.”

Countless things we now consider innovative were panned when they first appeared as being bad versions of what was then mainstream. This point gets at why that happens. Because the first version of something new frequently looks like the last version of the current thing, the new thing tends to be judged using the old as the standard.

It’s rather like if someone looked at a baby and thought, “That’s not a very useful human, is it? Seems broken: short battery life, needs frequent refills and constant monitoring and makes a lot of noise. And they call this the latest model?”

No, the difference with transformative things is like what Steve Jobs famously said about design: it’s not in how they look but in how they work—and even more, how they’re conceived. The first cars were noisier, slower horses. The first computer looked like an underpowered mainframe. The first iPhone was dismissed as replacing a keyboard with fragile glass. In each case, the innovation was lacking compared to the status quo—but the status quo was entirely the wrong thing to judge it by.

Each of those products, as with many innovations before and since, introduced entirely new ways to do the jobs their predecessors existed for. So sure, they started off worse in some ways people took for granted, but they also created new opportunities that didn’t exist before their appearance. And they eventually caught up and even surpassed the things they replaced.

That’s how innovation happens. Gradually, then all at once, and apparently worse at the start.

To be clear, though, I’m not criticising the people who pan innovations for missing the new paradigm. New paradigms are easy to miss because they’re about perspectives. Consider optical illusions. You’re probably familiar with the Rubin Vase and the Boring Figure (although you might not know them by those names).

The Boring Figure, named for its creator, artist Edwin Boring
The Boring Figure, named for its creator, artist Edwin Boring
The Rubin Vase, so named for its creator, Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin
The Rubin Vase, so named for its creator, Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin

Both images can be seen in two ways, but the first time anyone sees them, they typically don’t see the other without a deliberate effort. If it’s that easy to miss an actual image in front of you, it’s okay to be gracious with yourself for missing far less obvious paradigms.

But being aware that there’s a lot you’re probably missing is always a good start.

And nowhere is that more important than in personal innovation.

Get worse to get better

Change is always hard, but it might be nowhere harder than changing how you see yourself. A big part of that is the pain of realising how much time (that word again!) you may have lost with however you saw things before. It’s why the older people get, the less inclined they are to change. No one wants to face the possibility after 60 years alive that they spent it seeing something important entirely wrong.

And yet, if you’re wrong about something important, simply hiding from that won’t make it go away. Even worse, the things you don’t face (especially about yourself) don’t just affect you but also others and how you relate with them.

That is why it can be so helpful to remember, however much you think you know about ourselves, others and the world, that there are probably things you miss. Remembering it keeps you humble. That humility keeps you open to learning. And the openness creates space for curiosity: the willingness to take questions (yours or others’) seriously and not simply dismiss them.

But the humility (and the openness it allows us to have) is valuable in another way: it helps you be okay with the start of the future.

I said earlier that the future tends to start off looking worse. That applies not just to ideas, but also personally, as I was reminded of when I learned to cycle. I wrote in my essay on the experience:

 The biggest enemy to learning skills that make you better is often your competence with the skills you already have. And if you wish to be better, you have to be okay with being worse for a bit. And as with training wheels, making it “easier” with fallbacks sometimes just makes the learning take longer because you will, in fact, keep falling back on them. But as with my finding walking simple, the skills you already have are themselves proof of your ability to learn new ones.

Right from childhood, I’ve heard adults talk about finding things harder to learn, and attributing this to something about adulthood. But the older I’ve got, the more I’ve realised the real challenge is our ego. A big reason kids learn so much easier (apart from having a ton of time!) is that they don’t yet care very much about looking stupid. And the more they start to care about that, the more challenging learning becomes.

It works the other way around, too: the older you get, the more continuing to learn helps keep you from caring too much about how you look.

And the easier it is to get on with your own personal innovation.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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1 Comment

  1. Wise words! This article beautifully reminds us that the journey to the future is a gradual process, and that’s perfectly fine. Embracing patience and progress as we navigate the path ahead.

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