Today’s Innovations Are Tomorrow’s Baseline

Tony Hawk was the best skateboarder of all time. He is the Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods of his sport. Not just the best, but iconically so.

Hawk won 73 of the 103 pro contests he entered. His video games sold 30 million copies and grossed $1.7 billion. Six Flags named a rollercoaster after him.

I was never into skateboarding. But like millions of others I remember Tony Hawk for one thing: Landing a 900 at the 1999 X Games.

The 900 – two and half spins – was to skateboarding what the four-minute mile was to track: A goal so ambitious many thought it could never be done.

But after 10 failed attempts at the 1999 X Games, Hawk landed a 900.

It’s hard to describe how big a deal this was. ESPN recently remembered it as “arguably the most famous moment in action sports history.” Skateboarding in 1999 was viewed as the degenerate punk’s sport, yet the New York Times devoted an entire article to this one trick. It wrote:

Tonight at Pier 30 on his 11th try, [Hawk] seemed to defy gravity, launching himself high above the halfpipe. Spiraling with gymnastic skill, a twirling mass somersaulting two and a half rotations, he landed nearly perfectly on his waiting skateboard, his feet seemingly glued to it. He lightly touched the ground with his right hand, then rose up, riding the trick out clean. There was a wild ovation from the capacity crowd of 8,000 on the pier. The other skaters jumped to the bottom of the halfpipe and lifted Hawk until he seemed to soar above them.

But what happened next is even more amazing.

This is a 10-year-old amateur kid landing a 900 last year:

Hawk was also the first person to land a 720 (two spins) – a feat recently accomplished by a second-grader.

This isn’t to discount Hawk’s achievement. It’s an example of something vital to progress in virtually every field: Innovation works like compound interest. Today’s group uses yesterday’s hard work and discovery as a starting point to build off of, rather than a finish line.

It took an eternity for one person to master the 900 because there was no one else to watch or mimic. Hawk was alone, like a tinkerer. Today’s skateboarders have a set of directions. They can watch videos of Hawk and say, “Look how he did it. Look how he bent his knees and tipped his shoulder.” Not to mention the motivation of, “If he can do it, I can too.” It’s a roadmap of how to do something, versus the black hole of doubt Hawk faced when trying something no one had before.

We see this in so many fields. Today’s innovations become tomorrow’s baseline, which means people, as a group, get better over time.

Nassim Taleb writes, “According to the medieval science historian Guy Beaujouan, before the thirteenth century no more than five persons in the whole of Europe knew how to perform a division.” Modern algebra didn’t exist until the 1600s. Today both are taught standard by age 15. An average pre-teen today can perform calculations the world’s top mathematicians couldn’t fathom 500 years ago. Which means we now start from a high baseline of what’s achievable, and can easily go on to do amazing things with math – like, say, engineer software. Coding itself is being taught younger and younger, and as a standard subject, thanks to people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – the Tony Hawks of their field – who showed the world what’s possible.

Until the 1940s people doubted whether humans could ever run a mile in less than four minutes. Then Roger Bannister did it in 1954. “Nowadays, college kids do that every year,” author David Epstein says. “On rare occasions, a high school kid does it. As of the end of last year, 1,314 men had run under four minutes in the mile.” Same for the 100-meter dash. Today’s U.S. high school record (10.0 seconds) would have been a world record as recently as 1960. Just qualifying for the Boston Marathon requires a time that, 100 years ago, would put you within nine minutes of a world record. Part of this is thanks to advances in training, equipment, and track material. But part is the motivation of, “If they can do it, so can I.” Anyone who runs knows you have more stamina in a group race than you do running by yourself. Why? Because motivation feeds off watching other people do things you would otherwise justify quitting, or never trying. The result is that, in almost every field, people are constantly trying to one-up the competition, even when the competition does things that were previously thought impossible.

Humans have been practicing the art of throwing their bodies around for tens of thousands of years. But it’s almost comical how far gymnastics has come in just the last 60 years:

In investing, John Burr Williams made a bold statement in 1938 when he argued the proper way to value a stock was by discounting its future dividend payments. It was a big deal at the time, and right after Benjamin Graham and David Dodd’s book Security Analysis taught, for virtually the first time, how to value stocks as companies, rather than faddish pieces of paper. Today these concepts are mastered by first-year analysts right out of college. It’s not an exaggeration to say a 22-year-old analyst today has more information and conceptual investment knowledge than most Ivy League finance professors did a century ago.

In all of these cases, growth follows the same exponential road of compound interest. One person sticks their neck out and does X. The next generation starts with X and says “I can do X + 1.” The next starts with X+1 and shoots for X+1+1, and so on. These are often tiny improvements. But, as compound interest teaches us, tiny improvements built upon a base that’s generations in the making can add up to something remarkable.

This all may seem obvious. But a lot of pessimism about the future comes from being incredulous that today’s generation is producing, say, another Bill Gates, Henry Ford, or Tony Hawk. This misses a critical point: We now get to use all of those people’s discoveries as a starting point, a foundation to build off of. Never underestimate the power of someone armed with the accumulated trial and error of every genius who came before them.

A few years ago a twelve-year-old skateboarder named Tom Schaar landed a 1080 – three full spins.

Asked what he thought of the achievement, Hawk replied: “It represents everything I love about skateboarding: constant evolution.”

Which is a statement you can apply to just about any field.