10 May 2018

This post is about a mental leap. I might not be an experienced and successful entrepreneur, but I am humbly trying to figure it out, to make a positive improvement in the world. I’ve been a critical thinker throughout my life and I am trying to combine sharp mathematical thinking with the humility of realizing I am a beginner at entrepreneurship.

Most of my life I’ve been given problems to solve. Eventually, I got good at solving them. I became a compulsive problem solver and that was good for my career. I optimized so much for solving problems defined by others that I was able to make use of any kind of information given in the problem statement, or mock the problem author if they happened to include extra information, that was not necessary to solve the problem.

I was thinking inside the box - using only the properties and resources I was given. Only in the last couple years am I making the leap to consider all resources in the world, and all the problems, and to decide which of them I want to solve.

Life is not reinforcement learning, and I am breaking out of the old robot mindset into the mindset of the entrepreneur, realizing that I can define my objective, unconstrained by the resources I have, and find a way, or rather find a lever, or make a lever to achieve it.

One of the definitions of an entrepreneur is “a person who moves resources from a lower yield to a higher yield”. That definition is somewhat unrelated to the common image of entrepreneur - a person who starts a company or business. It doesn’t say anything about how business savvy they are or whether they take a risk or whether they are well connected. It instead focuses on the success criteria - higher yield of resources. Optimization of the world we live in.

That definition doesn’t even say anything about who these resources belong to. We might naively consider them to belong to the entrepreneur themselves. This might be the case for a trader who’s bought goods cheaply and is trying to sell them more expensively, or someone who is already rich by other means. But it need not be.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs would move resources that belong to others. They create a lever, and convince all these people who own the resources to use that lever. That’s the Archimedes’ lever - “Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth”. Archimedes, the Greek mathematician, discovered that a long enough lever, if propped appropriately, could transform the feeble force of a human being into a tool that can raise boulders and planets.

The entrepreneur’s lever can be a company they run, or a service they provide, but could also be their words and actions. The most powerful levers can move mountains.

Entrepreneurs do not necessarily need to capture the extra yield they are creating. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, moved the resource of documents from a lower yield of isolation, to a higher yield of being in a network. When connected through hyperlinks, they become more valuable, the information in them has more context for interpretation. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, took information that was in people’s heads and created a way to organize that into curated articles. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, created a way for software to be free-as-in-freedom, moving it from the low yield for society of private usage and ownership, to the higher yield of public ownership and development.

These people have had an enormous impact on our lives, and on the world economy. But they, and others like them, did not get rich from that. Still, they did find resources which can be improved and improved them. They worked with infinite resources - not just things they own and control, but the resources everyone has. They embodied the entrepreneur definition given above. They looked globally, at all the resources of humanity, and found a way to improve them.

They built the levers and then gave them away, for free, so all of us can be like Archimedes. I think it is also great when people make reasonable profit from the levers they create. It’s a powerful incentive for the creation of new levers and the improvement of our lives. Many entrepreneurs go that route and make profit. But I chose the people above, who didn’t make profit, to illustrate the idea of moving resources, regardless of anything else.

For an entrepreneur to be resourceful, and to think in terms of unlimited resources is the same thing. All the resources of the world exist, and can be moved and employed. And that’s the labor of the entrepreneur. It’s meta-labor. It still takes a lot of energy, time, and hard work. But the purpose of that labor is to find and push the right lever. CEOs, scientists, investors - anyone could be the person who pushed it.

The mental leap, at least for me, is to be looking for the lever, rather than just producing the resource.

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