How to Have Impact: Operating at the Margin and Beyond

In 1942 Howard Hughes set out to build the world’s largest aircraft, the Hughes H-4 Hercules. With a wingspan close to 100 meters and a weight of 180,000 kilograms, it was questionable whether the gigantic bird would ever take off.

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

The Hughes H-4 Hercules – 2 Nov 1947

What’s just as uncanny is that most of  the aircraft’s structure had to be constructed using wood, since a world war had restricted the supply of steel. A few years later, when Hughes had to testify before the US government (the aircraft was partially funded by the tax payer), he remarked:

“The Hercules was a monumental undertaking. It is the largest aircraft ever built. It is over five stories tall with a wingspan longer than a football field. That’s more than a city block. Now, I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I have my reputation all rolled up in it and I have stated several times that if it’s a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”

Hughes operated at the margin: When he wasn’t wooing beautiful actresses or breaking air speed records, he was busy developing the world’s first communication satellite and designing a moon lander that contributed to the success of the Apollo mission.1 The billionaire loved reaching for the edges. However, these attempts also came at a cost.

For example, legend has it that when qualified pilots refused to perform a dangerous aircraft stunt for a movie Hughes was directing, the stubborn billionaire decided to pilot the manoeuvre himself. He pulled off the feat but also crashed violently shortly after. Hughes almost died in the accident. And though some say he kept bits of the wreckage to remind him just how close to death he had come, the event did not diminish his appetite for risk.2 Indeed Hughes went on to have more brushes with death, and in less threatening scenarios, brushes with bankruptcy (he lost $90 million – no less than $400 million in today’s money – in a failed helicopter venture.)3

Operating at the Margin

Whenever I come across stories like those of Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, I’m reminded of a quote by the poet T. S. Eliot:

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

That’s what operating at the margin is about. It involves reaching for the edges, pushing the limits, and breaking new ground. Marketer Seth Godin calls it edgecrafting, or to it put more plainly, finding an edge. Here’s an entrepreneurship example offered by Godin:4

“You must go all the way to the edge . . . accepting compromise doesn’t make sense. Running a restaurant where the free prize is your slightly attractive waitstaff won’t work—they’ve got to be supermodels or weightlifters or identical twins. You only create a free prize when you go all the way to the edge and create something remarkable.

[Remarkable things are] the cheapest, easiest, best designed, funniest, most expensive, most productive, most respected, cleanest, loudest [and so forth.]”

That’s what operating at the margin in business can look like. More generally, operating at the margin is when you move past a cushy status quo to pursue something extra—ordinary. Of course, you might fail spectacularly – in fact you will probably fail more than you succeed – but unsuccessful grand efforts often leave a trail of stepping stones that enable other forms of achievement in the future. The giant airplane that Howard Hughes built, for instance, ended up flying just once, and for a mere 50 seconds.5 But without his ambitious contribution to aircraft history, efforts in the sector could arguably have been more timid in the years that followed.

A Hypothesis on How to Have Impact

These observations bring me to paraphrase Theodore Levitt: the world is driven by what happens at the margin.6 Put more precisely:

“. . . what’s important is not the average . . .  but the marginal . . .; what happens not in the usual case but at the interface of newly erupting conditions.”

Indeed, it is the ‘stubborn courage’ of a few, as Nassim Taleb puts it, that “disproportionately moves the needle” when it comes to change and progress.7

So here’s some practical advice. If you want to have impact in the world, operate at the margin. Pursue a ridiculously ambitious project or two in your lifetime. Stand for something you deeply care about. Have the courage to go against the grain. You will polarise people (some will love what you’re doing and others will hate it) but what you won’t have is indifference. You will have impact.8


Thanks to NatalieGiftedDino, and Renee for reading an early draft of this essay.

Notes

[1] http://www.inc.com/articles/2004/12/jamessteele.html

[2] https://selvedgeyard.com/2009/03/10/howard-hughes-odd-behavior/

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/1977/11/13/archives/hughes-documents-disclose-big-losses-in-last-decade-two-court.html

[4] http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2013/09/edgecraft-instead-of-brainstorming.html

[5] https://acesflyinghigh.wordpress.com/2012/03/21/the-hughes-h-4-hercules-aka-the-spruce-goose/

[6] https://hbr.org/1983/05/the-globalization-of-markets

[7] http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/minority.pdf

[8] Operating at the margin can be used for both good and bad.

Transformation Goals vs Acquision Goals

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“But the problem is that most things look trivial if we look at them the wrong (or perhaps right) way, and everything is ephemeral. It’s vanity, for instance, to think that having a best-selling book or winning a literary prize is not ephemeral. Given the fickleness of taste and the caprice of fashion and literary critics, it would also be wrong to take any such success as a reliable indicator of importance. If we think worthwhile goals have to be both important and enduring, then it’s time to despair. So here’s another suggestion. The best goals are ones that focus on doing and being, not on having done. Whenever a goal is to have done something, whether it’s to have won a Grand Slam or eaten more baked beans in one minute than any other human in recorded history, then the problem is that achieving the goal leaves you with nothing left to do, unless you adopt yet another goal, and keep the cycle going until you tire of life or it tires of you. If, however, your goal is to be a good cook, for example, to do good cooking, then achieving that goal means you have succeeded in living a form of life that has more meaning and satisfaction to you, a life that is filled with more of what you value. It’s important to notice that adopting this kind of goal sometimes involves focusing on having done certain things too. If you try to be the best tennis player you can, for instance, then you will hope to have won some tournaments by the time you retire. If you want to be a writer, then you will certainly want to have finished writing something eventually. The critical point is that each of these goals has its value because pursuing it requires you to do and be what you want to do and be. That is what gives it deep worth, not simply the fact that you have done them and so added to your list of achievements.”

Excerpt from The Shrink and the Sage by Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro

P.s This is an idea I came to appreciate more of in 2015

Year in Review (2015): What I Learnt from Reading 53 Books

In 2015 I took on the challenge of reading 53 books (roughly one title a week). After completing the marathon, I came to appreciate a few points about the process:

  1. Each book is a catalyst for growth: you can learn something new, challenge old beliefs, and perhaps even, dare I say it, become a better person.
  2. Books are cheap to buy but expensive to read: a book is cheaper than a cinema ticket but a 300-page script will cost you around 5 hours of reading time (depending on how fast you read).
  3. One idea is a good enough return on investment: given how much time goes into reading, aim to walk away with at least one useful idea in order to make your time-investment worthwhile.

In light of the above, I compiled over 50,000 words of ‘lessons notes’ from the reading adventure. Since this ‘book of books’ is too cumbersome to share, I thought I’d highlight a few nuggets from the escapade. Below are some of my favourite passages. I hope you’ll find them a refreshing read as we embark on a new year full of hope and aspiration.

On Life

Having a philosophy of life is better than meandering aimlessly.

How Will You Measure Your Life: by Clayton Christensen

How Will You Measure Your Life: by Clayton Christensen

“The type of person you want to become—what the purpose of your life is—is too important to leave to chance. It needs to be deliberately conceived, chosen, and managed.” – Clayton Christensen

Hegarty on Creativity: by John Hegarty

Hegarty on Creativity: by John Hegarty

“Ultimately, if you don’t have a guiding philosophy underpinning your thinking and work, then what you produce won’t touch people. It can’t. And that’s the most important task of any piece of creativity.” – John Hegarty

Status is illusive.

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What Should I Do with My Life?: by Po Bronson

“…the strongest of all human drives is the desire to belong to an Inner Ring, an imaginary circle of the important. He warned the students, though, that this ring is an illusion. No sooner do you crack one ring than you are soon obsessed with joining the even-more-exclusive ring inside that one. Status is like an onion, comprised of endless layers, and no matter how many rings you cracked, you were still on the outside. “If you follow that desire, you will reach no inside that is worth reaching,” he insisted. It took conscious and continuous effort not to be an “inner ringer,” someone distracted by this game.” – Po Bronson
On People

Build relationships before you need them.

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Never Eat Alone: by Keith Ferrazzi

“…don’t wait until you’re out of a job, or on your own, to begin reaching out to others. You’ve got to create a community of colleagues and friends before you need it. Others around you are far more likely to help you if they already know and like you. Start gardening now. You won’t believe the treasures to be found within your own backyard.” – Keith Ferrazzi

Left untamed, social media is toxic.

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F*ck! I’m in My Twenties: by Emma Koenig

social media

from the book, F*ck! I’m in My Twenties

On Business

To find business ideas, look for problems to solve.

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Rework: by Jason Fried & David Hansson

“The easiest, most straightforward way to create a great product or service is to make something you want to use. That lets you design what you know—and you’ll figure out immediately whether or not what you’re making is any good…”

Inventor James Dyson scratched his own itch. While vacuuming his home, he realized his bag vacuum cleaner was constantly losing suction power—dust kept clogging the pores in the bag and blocking the airflow. It wasn’t someone else’s imaginary problem; it was a real one that he experienced firsthand. So he decided to solve the problem and came up with the world’s first cyclonic, bagless vacuum cleaner.” – Jason Fried & David Hansson

If you try to please everyone you’ll please no one.

Growth Hacker Marketing: by Ryan Holiday

Growth Hacker Marketing: by Ryan Holiday

“The old mindset says go out and get everyone you conceivably can. This pressure comes from our clients, and many marketers have internalized these self-destructively ambitious goals. I know the feeling: I want to be everywhere. I want millions of video views. I want to become a trending Twitter topic. They try to go everywhere and end up going nowhere. What’s the point? Most of those people never become your customers. Growth hackers resist this temptation (or, more appropriate, this delusion). They opt, deliberately, to attract only the early adopters who make or break new tech services and seek to do it as cheaply as possible.” – Ryan Holiday

Long-term planning is unproductive in new businesses.

The Lean Startup: by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup: by Eric Ries

“The first problem is the allure of a good plan, a solid strategy, and thorough market research. In earlier eras, these things were indicators of likely success. The overwhelming temptation is to apply them to startups too, but this doesn’t work, because startups operate with too much uncertainty…Startups do not yet know who their customer is or what their product should be…Planning and forecasting are only accurate when based on a long, stable operating history and a relatively static environment. Startups have neither.” – Eric Ries

On Careers

A fulfilling career comes from without, not within.

The Road to Character: by David Brooks

The Road to Character: by David Brooks

“Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life. The assumption behind these cliches is that when you are figuring out how to lead your life, the most important answers are found deep inside yourself…

…But Frances Perkins found her purpose in life using a different method, one that was more common in past eras. In this method, you don’t ask, what do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?

In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.

Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buchner put it, “At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” – David Brooks

On Goals

Achievement requires indoctrination.

What to Say When You Talk to Yourself: by Shad Helmstetter

What to Say When You Talk to Yourself: by Shad Helmstetter

“Nothing you read once is permanent; none of the self-help programs continue to work by themselves or without constant reinforcement…without constant attention and effort, even the most exciting success breakthroughs run their course and eventually end up on our list of ‘good ideas’ and ‘good intentions.’” – Shad Helmstetter

Transformation goals are better than acquisition objectives.

Anything You Want: by Derek Sivers

Anything You Want: by Derek Sivers

“To have something (a finished recording, a business, or millions of dollars) is the means, not the end. To be something (a good singer, a skilled entrepreneur, or just plain happy) is the real point. When you sign up to run a marathon, you don’t want a taxi to take you to the finish line.” – Derek Sivers

You grow through courage not mediocrity.

The Art of Learning: Josh Waitzkin

The Art of Learning: Josh Waitzkin

“In my experience, successful people shoot for the stars, put their hearts on the line in every battle, and ultimately discover that the lessons learned from the pursuit of excellence mean much more than the immediate trophies and glory. In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way. Of course the real challenge is to stay in range of this long-term perspective when you are under fire and hurting in the middle of the war. This, maybe our biggest hurdle, is at the core of the art of learning.” – Josh Waitzkin

Overnight success is an illusion.

Self Belief: by Jamal Edwards

Self Belief: by Jamal Edwards

“It took me a few months to set up SB.TV, but years to get it to where it is today….People act like I was some kind of overnight success but that’s not true – I’ve been doing SB.TV for seven years! It just looks like it happened really quickly and smoothly because when things blow up, it looks like it’s come from nowhere, when actually a lot of hard work has gone in to making it happen.” – Jamal Edwards

Struggle precedes success.

Not that Kind of Girl: by Lena Dunham

Not that Kind of Girl: by Lena Dunham

“I was unemployed. And while I had a roof over my head (my parents’) and food to eat (also technically theirs), my days were shapeless, and the disappointment of the people who loved me (my parents) was palpable. I slept until noon, became defensive when asked about my plans for the future, and gained weight like it was a viable profession. I was becoming the kind of adult parents worry about producing.” – Lena Dunham

Note: Lena Dunham is now the lead actor and director of the hit HBO show, GIRLS.

Extraordinary struggle precedes extraordinary success.

The Dip: by Seth Godin

The Dip: by Seth Godin

“…if you look at the résumé of a typical CEO, you’ll see that he endured a 25-year Dip before landing the job. For a quarter of a century, he needed to suck it up, keep his head down, and do what he was told. He needed to hit his numbers, work longer hours than everyone else, and kiss up to his boss of the moment. Day in and day out, year after year. It’s easy to be a CEO. What’s hard is getting there. There’s a huge Dip along the way. If it was easy, there’d be too many people vying for the job and the CEOs couldn’t get paid as much, could they? Scarcity, as we’ve seen, is the secret to value. If there wasn’t a Dip, there’d be no scarcity.” – Seth Godin

On Spirituality

Meaning creates hope.

Me Without You: by Kelly Rimmer

Me Without You: by Kelly Rimmer

“I looked up at him, stared into the faded blue of his wrinkle-framed eyes, and asked, ‘How do you believe in God when the world is so fucked up?’ The priest smiled sadly. ‘You’ve got it backwards. It’s because the world is so fucked up that I believe in God.” – Callum Roberts

On Happiness

You can have it all and still be unhappy.

The Way to Love: by Anthony de Mello

The Way to Love: by Anthony de Mello

“Do you realize that you could have the finest looks and the most charming personality and the most pleasant of surroundings and still be unhappy? And deep down you know this is true but still you waste your effort and energy trying to get what you know cannot make you happy. Another false belief: If all your desires are fulfilled you will be happy. Not true. In fact it is these very desires and attachments that make you tense, frustrated, nervous, insecure and fearful. . . .The fulfilment of desire can [only], at the most, bring flashes of pleasure and excitement. Don’t mistake that for happiness.” – Anthony de Mello

The secret to a good life is purpose.

Sapiens: by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: by Yuval Noah Harari

“…findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists of seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’. As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.”

Ps. To get updates on what I’ll be reading in 2016 subscribe here.

How I became a writer

I fell into writing accidentally. In fact I never really started reading books seriously until age 20 or so (though I ordered my first non-fiction on book on Amazon aged 18 – it was Plato).

From age 20, I started reading books on a range of non-fiction on topics. Here’s what a selection of my Amazon book orders looks like for the last 8 years.

bookorders

See the big jump in year 4? That’s the year I wrote my first book. Ever since then I aim to read about 50 books a year (or one book a week).

Today, I read mainly on my Kindle but here’s what a fraction (about 20 %) of my book collection looks like:

bookshelf

So how did I get into writing? I think two factors played a pertinent role.

First, I was reading so much that I felt a strong urge to share all the cool stuff I was coming across. For example, did you know that happier people have stronger immune systems? How about willpower, did you know that it’s like a muscle and that while it can be strengthened via training, it can also be depleted a exertion? These are all things I shared in both my first and second book.

The second reason why I started writing was because it was a way of self-prescribing solutions to personal challenges in the past, present, or future. By pulling together ideas from a range of sources and writing about them, I cemented what I had learned during the ’research’ process.
These two reasons are also why I rarely write material that is overly personal, instead choosing to be more informative and prescriptive. But perhaps that will change. After all, writing with personality can be more fun for both the reader and author.
In sum, I write because I enjoy sharing insightful material. I also write because it helps me condense knowledge and ideas I have accumulated from all the reading that I do. As I grow older and experience more of the ups and downs that life has to offer, perhaps I will also start to write so people can relate.

How the Greeks Won Debates With Absurdity: Reductio ad Absurdum

Plato and Aristotle (source)

Plato and Aristotle (source)

Reductio ad absurdum is Latin for ‘reduction to absurdity’ – a method of reasoning that originates from classical Greek philosophy. Its use is common in debates, philosophy, and in formal mathematics (where it is referred to as proof by contradiction). Consider the examples below:

Example 1: Is intelligence determined by genes or the environment?

Let’s say someone is arguing that intelligence is 100 percent determined by genes. You can counter this with reductio ad absurdum:

If intelligence were only determined by genes, then someone raised without human contact or knowledge could still be a genius.

On the other hand, if someone were to argue that intelligence is 100 percent determined by the environment, upbringing and hard work, you could counter that argument as follows:

If intelligence is 100 percent determined by the environment, show me a professor who contributes to his field, despite having down syndrome (a form of intellectual disability).

Example 2: What is the smallest number ever?

If someone told you that they had discovered the smallest positive number in the world, you could easily disprove their claim as follows:

There can be no ‘smallest positive number’, because whatever that number is, you can divide it by 2 and get a smaller number!

But Watch out for straw man arguments!

Reductio ad absurdum can be an effective way of disproving or proving claims, but use it with caution. You have to be wary of straw man arguments – situations where the contradiction is made out of ignorance and without full appreciation of the specific assertions in a claim.

For instance, a person who believes the world was created would be inaccurate to argue against the theory of evolution as follows:

If evolution were true, we would be seeing monkeys turning into humans all the time.

The above is a straw man argument (and the wrong use of reductio ad absurdum) because it takes an extreme view of evolution and ignores the fact that evolution is a process that spans millions of years!


Further Reading and References:

Burn Your Ships: Options Distract Us from Our Main Objective

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational

“In 210 BC, a Chinese commander named Xiang Yu led his troops across the Yangtze River to attack the army of the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty. Pausing on the banks of the river for the night, his troops awakened in the morning to find, to their horror, that their ships were burning. They hurried to their feet to fight off their attackers, but soon discovered that it was Xiang Yu himself who had set their ships on fire, and that he had also ordered all the cooking pots crushed.

Xiang Yu explained to his troops that without the pots and the ships, they had no other choice but to fight their way to victory or perish. That did not earn Xiang Yu a place on the Chinese army’s list of favorite commanders, but it did have a tremendous focusing effect on his troops: grabbing their lances and bows, they charged ferociously against the enemy and won nine consecutive battles, completely obliterating the main-force units of the Qin dynasty.”

Excerpt from Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.


Note: This reminds me of the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In the film, a young child (who would go on to become the world’s greatest sushi chef) faces a similar trial:

“I was in my first year of school. My father told me ‘You have no home to come back to. That is why you have to work hard.’ I knew that I was on my own. I did not want to have to sleep at a temple or under a bridge. So, I had to work hard just to survive.”

Confounding

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream - New York, New York (photo credit: Martin Adolfsson)

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream – New York, New York (photo credit: Martin Adolfsson)

In statistics, confounding is when things are mixed up to the point of confusion, such that it is difficult to determine what causes what. Why is this a concept you should care about? Consider the following textbook example, which is similar to some of the headline-grabbing claims you may come across in newspapers or on the internet:

“In New York City, researchers have documented a positive association between ice cream consumption and burglary. On days when New Yorkers eat lots of ice cream, the burglary rate tends to be high. On the other hand, on days when people refrain from ice cream consumption, these rates are much lower.”

Given the above findings, what sort of conclusions would you draw? A lousy newspaper may report the above as follows:

  • “Study Shows Eating Ice Cream Causes Burglary.”

Another media outlet may spin the same research in a different way:

  • “Is Burglary Causing Us to Eat More Ice Cream?”

But in both cases, we have to be careful never to jump to any immediate conclusions because it is possible that a confounding variable exists. That is, a third variable may be confounding (mixing up/confusing) the relationship between ice cream sales and burglary.

In the above example the confounding variable happens to be temperature. This is because when it is hot people eat a lot of ice cream. They also spend a lot of time outdoors and this increases the opportunities for burglary.

So while ice cream sales (X) and burglary (Y) appear to move together, this does not mean X causes Y or vice-versa. A third variable, temperature, is the culprit.

Researchers usually make an effort to identify and eliminate the effects of confounding variables but this isn’t always successful. So be sure to maintain a bit of a skepticism whenever you come across studies that claim some factor, X, causes another factor, Y.


Further Reading:

Statistics and Data Interpretation for Social Work by James A. Rosenthal
Wikipedia Article on Confounding byWikipedia

Related Posts:

Conjunction Fallacy

The ‘Nobel Prize’ Chauffeur

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After receiving the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918, Max Planck went on tour across Germany. Wherever he was invited, he delivered the same lecture on new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur grew to know it by heart:

“It has to be boring giving the same speech each time, Professor Planck. How about I do it for you in Munich? You can sit in the front row and wear my chauffeur’s cap. That’d give us both a bit of variety.”

Plant liked the idea, so that evening the driver held a long lecture on quantum mechanics in front of a distinguished audience. Later, a physics professor stood up with a question. The driver recoiled: “Never would I have thought that someone from such an advanced city as Munich would ask such a simple question! My chauffeur will answer it.”

Excerpt from The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.

Constant Luxury is No Luxury At All

“But just as the human body didn’t evolve to deal well with today’s easy access to abundant fat and sugars, and will crave an extra cheeseburger when it shouldn’t, the human mind, apparently, didn’t evolve to deal with excess money, and will desire more long after wealth has become a burden rather than a comfort. A vast body of psychological evidence shows that the pleasures of consumption wear off through time and depend heavily on one’s frame of reference. Most of us, for instance, occasionally spoil ourselves with outbursts of deliberate and perhaps excessive consumption: a fancy spa treatment, dinner at an expensive restaurant, a shopping spree. In the case of the very wealthy, such forms of consumption can become so commonplace as to lose all psychological benefit: constant luxury is, in a sense, no luxury at all.”

Excerpt from Secret Fears of the Super-Rich by Graeme Wood.

Why Theory is Important

“Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.”

Excerpt from How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen.