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The Secret To Bringing Your Ideas And Interest To Life? 10,000 Shots.

Few people know that the breakthrough leading to the LED which illuminates our homes, offices, cars, and TVs looked like a complete failure at the start. Although LEDs were first invented in the 1960s they proved too dim for practical use. But one scientist, Shiju Nakamura, had an idea that he thought could overcome the limitation. The problem was that few others saw the potential. Nakamura recounts his discouragement presenting to empty rooms at academic conferences and being told by his boss and coworkers to quit. Despite these obstacles Nakamura continued, hacking together a patchwork lab of used equipment that often exploded, spilling plumes of smoke above company headquarters, inviting more taunting from coworkers. Finally, after years of daily experimentation, “the clouds parted” and Nakamura discovered an LED a thousand times brighter, leading to new industries and a Nobel prize.

One can’t help but ask, how did Nakamura endure all the uncertainty, discouragement, and setbacks to bring his idea to life? I study uncertainty and in my research for our book, The Upside of Uncertainty, I remember a conversation with the actor Dallas Roberts which crystalized a fundamental truth about turning our ideas to reality. We were hiking together overlooking a grass filled plain as Roberts recounted that most actors attend a hundred castings before they land a single role. It blew my mind to imagine trying anything a hundred times. When I asked him how he had learned to persist through those vast desserts of uncertainty when it felt like he would never get a role, he told me an interesting story: in the old days National Geographic would send photographers enough film for 10,000 shots and instruct them to shoot ever frame just to get that handful of images that would be printed.

The photography story seemed like a powerful metaphor for bringing our own ideas to life—to give yourself 10,000 shots to get something right—but the number seemed far too high. But when I fact-checked the story, I found that the number was too low! Most photographers received enough film for 20,000-60,000 shots and were told to shoot it all to get the dozen shots that might be printed. The story is a powerful metaphor that also contains a reality: in several decades of studying innovation, one thing is clear: the secret to bringing ideas to life is to give our ideas many, many more tries, maybe even 10,000 shots. After all, isn’t Edison quoted as saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

I asked myself an important question: how many times have I given myself 10,000 shots, let alone three shots to get something right? Honestly, not many. And I’m not alone. In his book, Adam Grant argues that 85% of people report remaining silent about their most important idea!

But there are times when I have spoken up or tried many times. So I puzzled, if the key to bringing an idea to life is to give it more tries, what are the principles that enable taking more shots and how do you know if you should quit? I will share a few here.

Give Yourself a Driver’s License (or at Least a Learner’s Permit)

Start by giving yourself a mandate—a sort of protective cover—to allow yourself more tries. For example, if you lose your job, you will try and try again, maybe a thousand times because your survival depends on it. It must happen. It has a mandate.

But what if we gave other things in our life—our ideas and interests—a mandate as well? For example, despite being a business school professor who teaches about innovation, uncertainty and technology, I have also always loved fiction and wanted to write fiction. Recently I decided that even though writing fiction doesn’t fit my vocation, rather than dream about what could have been, I would make time for it. But as one of my literary idols, Haruki Murakami half-jokingly acknowledges, writing fiction is a lonely, long, labor-intensive journey littered with self-doubt. Nonetheless, despite it making no sense and being full of discouragement, I persisted and now have drafts for two novels (and if you know any literary agents let me know)! Looking back, I ask, why did I give myself 10,000 shots when there were a thousand points when I could have quit? I concluded: because I told myself this is something fundamental to who I am. So I gave it a mandate, like one does when searching for a new job, and when setbacks popped up, I was sometimes knocked off course for a moment, but I just kept trying.

Here is the curious thing. Let’s be honest. I just made this mandate up. The essence of who I am is not determined by what I do, whether it is writing or standing on a stage. I just gave myself the mandate. This led me to wonder, could I give myself a mandate to try other things? Now a mandate is an intense word, I admit, so what if instead we call it a license, like a “driver’s license” to pursue your idea. Typically, a license is good for a few years, and a bit like a mandate, you could use it to give yourself more room to try! And admittedly, life is short, and there isn’t room for too many driver’s licenses, so how could you give yourself permission to pursue a mere curiosity? Well, you could give yourself a learner’s permit to pursue an idea or interest. For example, I’ve been interested in rowing for a decade but could never make the time. I finally gave myself a learner’s permit and signed up for three sessions to try it out. At the end, I can judge whether to extend my permit.

Lower the Cost

Another principle is to lower the cost of each try. If you can transform a try into a smaller experiment, rather than a large investment, then you can give yourself more shots. For my novel, I wrote a crappy first draft riddled by plot holes and then decided it was worth more revisions. For my rowing, I signed up for the three “initiation” sessions at the club rather than joining outright or buying a boat. Get creative and lower the cost.

How to Quit?

Despite the advice to give your ideas more tries, not every idea or insight is worth pursuing. How do you know when to quit? I’ve written extensively about in my book, The Innovator’s Method, so I’ll focus on the personal angle. First, it’s hard to know if you should quit if you never try! And if you give it a few tries, you will have a lot more information to make a sound decision. After that, it’s the head and the heart coming together. For example, I tried boating, which looked amazing from shore but is much more stressful (and expensive) when you are the captain. I decided, right now isn’t the time. Maybe in the future. I may throw in the towel on the novels one day. But only because there are more important things to which I want to give my ten thousand tries!


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