There’s a great scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan that goes like this:
Mary Wilke: Facts? I got a million facts at my fingertips.
Isaac Davis: That’s right, and they don’t mean a thing, right? Because nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery.
I think it poses an important question for entrepreneurs:
What can we understand intellectually? And what, to paraphrase Woody, has to enter you in a different way?
Two types of understanding
For the purposes of this argument I’d like to set up a contrast between two different types of understanding: intellectual and emotional.
Intellectual understanding is what you know rationally. For example, everyone intellectually understands that smokers have a higher risk of developing lung cancer and dying. This is something that you hold in the conscious part of your brain – Daniel Kahneman’s System 2.
Emotional understanding is what you get when you touch your hand to the stove and burn it: You learn not to put your hand on it again. This kind of understanding is held in the irrational, emotional, more subconscious part of the brain – System 1.
The interesting part of this is the dissonance displayed by these two systems of understanding.
A small example
A lot of people email me asking to meet because they want advice. I’m almost always happy to, if I have time. When we’ve found a time to meet, we’ve both ordered our coffee, and we’re sitting down to chat, a small percentage of them pull out NDAs for me to sign – the classic startup-newbie cliche.
If I stopped and asked one of those entrepreneurs:
“You know that your idea has a very, very low chance of actually going anywhere, correct?”
All of them would agree with me. They’re rational, intelligent, and well-educated. It would be ludicrous for them to argue anything else. All of them intellectually understand that their idea is probably not going to work.
But they insist on having me sign an NDA anyway.
Why do they do this?
How can they understand intellectually that most startups fail, and still want me to sign an NDA (an implication that they don’t really believe what they’re working on will fail)?
They do this because, to them, the failure is abstract. It’s just a statistic. It’s not present in their lives. And it’s subsequently very difficult to see how it applies to them. It’s not visceral enough, it doesn’t grab them by the collar and say “Listen to me!” It’s easy to ignore.
It’s the same as a smoker who knows the lung cancer statistics but still lights up every day. It’s easy for our brains to ignore abstract knowledge unless we understand how it applies to us.
In the case of the entrepreneur with the NDA, if they stick around long enough to see things through, they’ll start to understand.
Once they’ve put a few products out and realized that no one wanted them, they’ll start to get it. Once things have really fallen apart a few times, it will become a little bit more clear. Once they’ve been totally wrong enough to lose some of their ego, they’ll start to see how that failure statistic applies to them.
And then armed with a visceral, emotional understanding of what failure looks and feels like they’ll stop asking for NDAs. They’ll concentrate on other, more important things.
They’ll say to themselves (in a private moment), “So that’s what they were talking about. I get it now.”
An interesting parallel to books
I think this question about intellectual understanding and emotional understanding is most interesting as it applies to books. Books are our single best source of intellectual understanding. So really we should rephrase the question we’ve been asking as:
What can we learn from books? And what do we have to learn from experience?
The anti-book argument
There’s a whole contingent of entrepreneurs who don’t like to read, and very vocally so. I ask almost everyone I talk to whether they’ve read any good books lately, and I get a lot of “I can’t remember the last time I finished a book.”
The argument against books for entrepreneurs goes something like:
“What can I learn from a book that I can’t learn from experience?”
It’s then usually followed up with proof like:
“Books don’t help you avoid mistakes, so how could they be useful for entrepreneurs? They’re just a waste of time.”
I’d like to argue that by themselves books aren’t particularly useful (except as delightful entertainment.) That’s because books give us an abstract, intellectual understanding of the world.
But where the rubber really hits the road for books is when the intellectual understanding that they give us meets the emotional understanding borne out of our experience.
Here’s a good example.
You’re pregnant, now what?
What do reasonable people who want to have kids do when they find out they’re pregnant?
Most of them go pick up a stack of books from Barnes and Noble. Or have them Whisper-synced to their Kindle so they can enjoy their copy of “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” before their latte gets cold.
Most people who are interested in being good parents don’t say, “Ehhh, I’ll just pick it up as I go along. What can I learn from books that I can’t learn from experience?”
Why should we think that the experience of starting a company is so much less complicated than raising a child?
Reading a book on raising children before your first baby helps you to form a picture in your head of what it will be like. You’ll start to think about how to act in certain situations. You’ll start to think about what you should expect, what you should look out for. You’ll have a clear mental image, an intellectual framework that will help to prepare you for the next few decades of your life.
Intellectually, you’ll think you understand a little bit about how to raise a child.
Interestingly, you’ll probably find, once you actually have the baby, all of the things that you envisioned in your head will turn out to be totally wrong.
But having had the baby – having touched your hand to the stove and gained the emotional understanding – you’ll be equipped to think back to the things you read in the baby books and say, “Hey, I totally get it. That’s what they were talking about.”
You’ll gain a deeper appreciation for what you read, and the information in those books will start to feel relevant, and visceral to your every day life. You might go back and reread them with your new-found knowledge, and get something completely different out of them than you did when you first opened them.
They’ll evolve to stay relevant to your experience. (At least the good ones will.)
Connecting the dots backward
You won’t avoid every mistake by reading books.
But as an entrepreneur, when you’re out there every day building things they can do something else that’s just as valuable. What they can do is help you to contextualize, understand and introspect appropriately when mistakes do happen.
When something goes wrong they can help you analyze what happened and why.
They can help you get at the root of the issue in a way that you might not have been able to otherwise.
They can let you know that someone, somewhere has experienced exactly what you’re experiencing and that they figured out how to overcome it.
They can help you fit your experiences into an intellectual framework – an overall view of the way the world works – that will help you self-correct, meditate, and reflect in a way that is difficult to do as effectively otherwise.
They can help you take your emotional understanding, and combine it with an intellectual framework that will help you make the most of your experiences.
And, if you’re doing it right, every so often something will happen and you’ll sit there gobsmacked a little smile creeping across your face. You’ll remember back to a book you read a year ago. And you’ll say to yourself, “So that’s what they were talking about.”