The Art of Navigating the Idea Maze

Meriwether Lewis made daily journal entries during the Lewis and Clark expedition. On February 13, 1805 suddenly he stopped writing.

When Lewis wrote his first journal entry after months of stopping, on April 7th, his record goes like this:

Their fleet consisted of six small canoes and two small boats. “We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine,” Lewis wrote, “and these little vessels contain every article by which we were expected to subsist or defend ourselves.”

Ten years of planning went into getting their fleet together, but a lifetime of experiences prepared them for this moment.

The odds were against Lewis and Clark. Their imagination wandered through all the possibilities. Only now were they getting a glimpse of what could be. Lewis said, “I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”1

Fueled by personal growth from dopamine, Lewis was faced with the idea maze he’d be leading the crew through for the two years.

What is The Idea Maze?

Good founders don’t just have ideas; they have a bird’s eye view of the idea maze.

Jeff Bezos told Economic Club president David Rubenstein, “If I make, like, three good decisions a day, that’s enough. And they should be as high quality as I can make them. Warren Buffett says he’s good if he makes three good decisions a year.”

Bezo is firm in his belief that “as a senior executive, you get paid to make a small number of high quality decisions.”2 Your only role is to make these decisions. You must understand where you’re at in the idea maze and navigate it.

Ideas are not enough to be successful. First you need to know how to recognize big ideas. Then you must execute on those. Execution is when you’ve entered the idea maze. You’ve become the man in the arena.

Balaji created the idea maze. He said, “good founders don’t just have ideas; they have a bird’s eye view of the idea maze.”3

You must choose which paths to take and which paths to avoid. There’s going to be paths you cannot make succeed – dead ends – no matter how hard you try. Some paths you can only go down after making progress first. Pitfalls will appear down others with scale.

The idea maze is difficult to navigate. Many times you won’t know which paths are dead ends until you go down them. 

It’s your job to determine what turns bring treasure, not death.

Steve Jobs would say “deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”4 When Jobs returned to Apple he slashed 70% of their products and drew 4 squares on a white board.

On the columns and rows he wrote: consumer, pro, desktop, portable.

Apple would only make four products (one in each square). Everything else was a no. All the rest of the products were leading to dead ends.

You have to move slowly through the idea maze. 

Focus is your superpower. Although patience can be bitter, its fruit is sweet. To focus you have to say no to 80% of the things you could do. The small 20% you can then do exceptionally well.

Prepare for The Idea Maze

Reality aligned to Meriwether Lewis’s imagination after 10 years of preparation. A bird’s eye view of the idea maze was visible and he finally knew what he would be navigating his men through.

I don’t advise spending 10 years preparing for your quest. The world moves too fast today. But the only way to make it out of the idea maze is to have a plan.

The best plans come from an obsession with the market and unique insights others lack. Understand your industry's history. Figure out who the other players are. Study the past failures.

All of this preparation builds you up for one thing: seeing the way technology will move.

Entrepreneurs are successful because of their vision. You will never be given vision. It comes from developing new concepts for how things work.

Develop new concepts of how things function to develop a vision for the future.

Your vision is the end of the maze. The place you’re navigating towards. Around the turn of the century Steve Jobs began developing a new vision for the personal computer. The Macintosh was wildly successful. Families all over the world had computers in their homes. But Apple was not out of the idea maze.

Jobs had a vision that the computer would be a hub for all your digital activity. 

A place to play your videos or store your photos, to read books and magazines, a place to listen to music. The computer rather than sit on the sidelines would coordinate all your devices. Linked and synced in one place – a digital hub. This vision came from the development of the concept of a “digital lifestyle” where everything increasingly becomes more digital in people’s lives.

This vision allowed Apple to navigate the idea maze to develop the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and iCloud. A lot more than the original four products necessary to provide them to focus to find these paths.

Navigating the idea maze transformed Apple from a high-end niche computer company into the most valuable consumer technology company in the world.

3 ways to navigate The Idea Maze

Icarus is famous in Greek mythology for flying too close to the sun, melting his beeswax wings in the process. Innovators often become martyrs to the progress of civilization in the same way.5

Avoid thinking you’re out of the idea maze too soon.

Malcom McLean made this mistake. He pioneered the modern day shipping container. Drove a 94% reduction in the cost of shipping. Then blew himself up after he changed the world. He gambled on being able to ship all around the world and the rising price of oil led to the loss of his $400M fortune.6

To properly navigate the idea maze do these 3 things:

1. Set anti-goals

Modern capitalism creates an ever moving goal post. Expectations rise with results. Your ambitions grow twice as fast as your satisfaction.

Anti-goals are meant to keep you from moving the goal post.7

Joe Rogan makes money from his hobbies without turning his hobbies into jobs. He hits goals but avoids anti-goals.8

Anti-goals are what you decide not to pursue to avoid a particular lifestyle, career path, or habit. These are things you view as unproductive or undesirable. Anti-goals go against your personal values and preferences.

Joe Rogan became a commentator for the UFC while avoiding the trap by just doing Vegas shows. He does comedy but doesn’t have to tour 200+ days a year. He’s the #1 podcaster while focusing on having conversations he finds interesting, not growth metrics.

The way to stop achieving anti-goals is by defining the idea maze differently.

2. Get the industry framing right

You must know the game you're playing.

Max Levchin, the co-founder of PayPal, said they survived and their competitors didn’t because PayPal was “a security company pretending to be a financial company.”9 They judged the risk of a transaction and decided which risks to take on.

The frame of reference is the competitive advantage. 

They realized fraud would be the biggest issue and came up with ways to attack it on their own. PayPal’s approach was “fraud is going to kill us. What can we do to save ourselves?” Competitors failed because they viewed themselves as payment processors. Banks familiar with fraud said “how can we build this and not let fraud in?” 

One view of the struggle in the idea maze limited users. PayPal’s view forced them to come up with an innovative solution.

3. Make bounded commitments

Sometimes you need to persist down a path before you will see results.

Bounded commitments offer you the advantage of persistence with the flexibility to pivot. Without them you continue down a path because of sunk cost.

List your options. Choose the best one. Commit to it for a set period of time. At the end of that time period reevaluate your direction.

Bounded commitments turn your time into the resource you use as the breaking point which prevents you from quitting too early or going through endless doomsday scenarios. A line gets drawn. You have clarity on when to turn around and pursue a different path before it ends with you in ruins (repeating the same mistake of Malcom McLean).

The goal is to use the bounded commit to collect more information and evaluate if you’ll see results. Navigating the idea maze is all about moving slowly as you gain more information to have clarity on when to move fast.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Ambrose, S.E. (2016) in Undaunted courage. Simon & Schuster Ltd, p. 212.
  2. Hu, J.C. (2018) Jeff Bezos only expects himself to make three good decisions a day, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/work/1390844/jeff-bezos-only-expects-himself-to-make-three-good-decisions-a-day (Accessed: 16 March 2024).
  3. Jorgenson, E. and Srinivasan, B.S. (2023) in The Anthology of Balaji: A Guide to Technology, Truth, and Building the Future. Smart Friends Publishing, pp. 190-214.
  4. Isaacson, W. (2022) Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp. 337-531.
  5. Marc Andreessen: How Risk Taking, Innovation & Artificial Intelligence Transform Human Experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yixIc1Ai6jM
  6. Ridley, M. (2021) in How innovation works and why it flourishes in freedom. New York: Harper Perennial.
  7. Housel, M. (2023) in The Psychology of Money: Timeless lessons on wealth, greed, and happiness. Petersfield, UK: Harriman House Publishing, p. 41.
  8. 7 Semi-Controversial Rules For Success - Shaan Puri: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3d4AkAaF_Mw
  9. Livingston, J. (2010) in Founders at work: Stories of startups’ Early Days. Berkeley, CA: Apress, pp. 10–138.

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