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Are we building the wrong things?
How to convince people to solve hard problems
One of the best things about startups is the optimism. I am lucky to have friends working on hard problems in healthcare, food tech, and more.
And yet for each founder out there trudging through an unsolved problem, there seem to be ten founders building yet another company around NFTs (note: this piece is not a knock against NFTs. But this monkey is probably not going to solve our healthcare crisis).
Innovation, startup edition
In my last piece “The Innovation Mindset,” I defined innovation as “identifying a problem to be solved, and then trying a thousand different ways to solve it.
In mature, digital industries like consumer and gaming, big ideas can be tiny tweaks. And that’s what keeps people motivated to build - the idea that a massive shift is right around the corner. The idea that success is not that far away. But in the areas we need innovation the most, where big changes are ultramarathons away, there seem to be fewer people lining up.
The problem is that innovation is hard
The problem is the following:
Innovation takes energy
Innovation takes capital
The hardest problems need the most energy and capital, which increases risk for investors
No one wants to play the long game
Why are we spending time making digital monkeys instead of focusing on the diabetes epidemic? Because investing in a healthcare company takes more capital and more energy, and is more likely to fail. Because there is no playbook on success for unsolved problems. Because the probability of success (and ROI) is low. Because the road to success is long.
Humans are wired for the short-term. We want Pop-Tarts over broccoli, we want to lay on the couch instead of going for a run, and we want to watch the new season of Stranger Things rather than learn Japanese. There are all sorts of self-help books out there designed to help you curb these short-term wirings, but I’d like to try a different approach.
How do we incentivize people to work on hard problems?
When I was in college, I studied political science. One of my favorite classes was taught by a professor named Gary Bass, an acclaimed author and former journalist at The Economist. At the end of every semester, he made a compelling pitch to his students to participate in public service. In sum, it went something like this:
If you don’t participate in public service, someone else less qualified than you will.
This thought haunts me to this day. If we don’t step up and solve big problems, they may never get solved. We like to think that the people around us will pick up the slack for us. But I believe that each and every one of us has a unique gift to give, that will drive important change in our world. I don’t have a checklist or a how-to guide on how to solve big problems, all I have is a question.
What will you do to leave your mark on this world?
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