The Sweet Spot For Doing Great Work
Speaking to entrepreneurs at the startup incubator Y Combinator, the billionaire Peter Thiel drew a Venn diagram on a whiteboard. In one of the overlapping circles, he wrote, “seems like a bad idea,” and in the other, “is a good idea.” The intersection is the sweet spot for doing great work, Thiel said.
Everyone knows that to do great work you need natural ability and you need to work hard. But there’s a third ingredient that doesn’t get talked about or written about as often: the ability to be comfortable working on what seems like a bad idea. So that’s the theme of this week’s SIX at 6.
Yeah, I’m The Freak
The comedian Hasan Minhaj is the son of Muslim Indian immigrants. His father is an organic chemist and his mother is a physician at Mather Air Force Base. “The choices,” Minhaj says of his parent’s expectations for him, “were doctor, lawyer, engineer, failure.” So, “for my first decade as a comedian,” Minhaj says, “it was real rough between me and my parents.” For his first decade as a comedian, it seemed like a bad idea. For his first decade as a comedian, Minhaj had natural ability and he worked hard. But more than those things, he needed the ability to be comfortable pursuing something that seemed, to everyone around him, like a bad idea. After he became a big-time comedian, Minhaj would talk about what it took to get there: “you have to be cool with being like, ‘I went to the family wedding and everyone made fun of me and cool, I live outside the matrix.’ You have to be able to go to the party and be like, ‘yeah, I’m the freak and that’s fine.’”
A Freak Notion
In 1891, a 28-year-old Henry Ford became an engineer with The Edison Company. He worked a day shift then, he writes in My Life and Work, “every night and all of every Saturday I worked on the new motor.” Every night, in his home workshop, Ford was experimenting with gasoline engines and automobiles. Then in 1899, The Edison Company offered him a promotion but with one condition: “that I would give up my gas engine and devote myself to something really useful.” Just about everyone in Ford’s circle thought gas engines seemed like a bad idea. They thought the automobile was a “freak notion” that would never be more than a toy for rich people. “All the wise people,” Ford wrote, “demonstrated conclusively that the engine could not compete with steam. They never thought that it might carve out a career for itself.” And so, he was forced to choose between the promotion and the automobile. “I chose the automobile,” Ford wrote. “I quit my job on August 15, 1899, and went into the automobile business.” And for the next decade, Ford was the freak working on something that seemed like a bad idea. Of the people who thought that going into the automobile business seemed like a bad idea, Ford wrote, “I have noticed a great love for regularity. Men fall into the half-alive habit.” When he later formed the Henry Ford Company, he saw it in his own factories. When he tried to implement ways to produce with less useless motion, the workers pushed back. “What most irked them,” Ford wrote, “was that it interfered with the well-worn grooves in which they had been accustomed to move.” There is a subtle danger in this love for regularity, Ford wrote. “It indicates that the next jolt of the wheel of progress is going to fling you off.”
This Is Kind Of Ridiculous
Just after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In The Heights” had won a Grammy and four Tony Awards, Lin-Manuel was invited to perform at the White House. Implicit in the timing of the White House’s invitation was the expectation that Miranda would perform something from “In The Heights.” But he didn’t. Instead, Miranda debuted a song from a hip hop album he had been working on. “It’s a concept album,” Miranda told the crowd, “about the life of someone I think embodies hip-hop. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.” The crowed laughed. Miranda said, “You laugh but it’s true.” Like Ford’s gas engines, people thought music about Alexander Hamilton was a freak notion. The day after that White House performance, Miranda got made fun of during a three-minute rant on The Daily Show. Host Jon Stewart said, “You’re rapping about Alexander Hamilton? This is kind of ridiculous.” Miranda worked on the Alexander Hamilton concept for the next eight years. So, Miranda said, “I had a lot of people look at me like I was crazy for a very long time.” The song he performed at the White House would go on to be the opening number in Hamilton, a musical that earned a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, winning 11. It won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. It won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It won the 2017 Billboard Music Award for Top Soundtrack. It won the number eight spot on Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2015.
The Red Thread
Have you ever seen a white garment with a couple of rogue red threads? The Stoic philosopher Agrippinus liked to say he wanted to be like the read thread. Living during the tyrannical reign of the deranged emperor Nero, it would have been easier to blend in with the majority of people. “But I want to be the red,” Agrippinus said, “that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, ‘Be like the majority of people?’ And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red?”
Ideas Are By Definition Irrational
Tim Westergren, founder of the music streaming platform Pandora, has said that an idea is by definition an irrational thought. “It’s a thought that’s never been had before.” Above, I chose examples where it worked out for people who pursued an irrational thought. Of course, it doesn’t always work it. Of course, the people telling you that it seems like a bad idea—sometimes, they’re right. It’s all a crapshoot, Will Ferrell would say. In any case, it’s good to be able to be cool with being the freak. It’s good to be able to be cool with falling out of the well-worn grooves of the half-alive habit. With seeming kind of ridiculous. With people looking at you like you’re a little crazy. With being the red thread. It’s good to be able to be cool with working on what seems like a bad idea.