When there is no map, you need a compass

March 12, 2012 · 2 min read

In his latest essay, Paul Graham provides advice on how to achieve "frighteningly ambitious" goals:

Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Want to dominate microcomputer software? Start by writing a Basic interpreter for a machine with a few thousand users. Want to make the universal web site? Start by building a site for Harvard undergrads to stalk one another.

Empirically, it's not just for other people that you need to start small. You need to for your own sake. Neither Bill Gates nor Mark Zuckerberg knew at first how big their companies were going to get. All they knew was that they were onto something. Maybe it's a bad idea to have really big ambitions initially, because the bigger your ambition, the longer it's going to take, and the further you project into the future, the more likely you'll get it wrong.

I think the way to use these big ideas is not to try to identify a precise point in the future and then ask yourself how to get from here to there, like the popular image of a visionary. You'll be better off if you operate like Columbus and just head in a general westerly direction. Don't try to construct the future like a building, because your current blueprint is almost certainly mistaken. Start with something you know works, and when you expand, expand westward.

When you are trying to invent the future, you are in uncharted territory. There is no map to follow, and no one can draw one before the territory has been explored. If you try, you're just guessing.

When you have no map, you need a compass instead. Something to orient you and guide you. Something to allow you to do continual small course corrections along the way.

When doing a startup, that compass is your vision—not the details, but the essence of what you are trying to create and your fundamental understanding of the opportunity and the underlying factors giving rise to it.

If you can't know the details, how do you even know your vision exists? You can't make out the details of a mountain far in the distance, either, but you know it exists. It's too big and too obvious not to.

When you hear entrepreneurs or investors talk about markets that are "ripe for disruption", such as payments, media, or health, that's what they're talking about. It's clear those mountains are there in the distance, off in uncharted territory. But nobody knows yet exactly what they look like, or exactly what winding path leads to them.

You can fail to change the world by trying to "architect the future like a building", by following a path on a map you drew by guessing, without looking up to check your course. You can also fail by having no compass, no landmark, no north star to guide you. To achieve something great, something "frighteningly ambitious," you need both.

These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.


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